Last week, a handful of commissioners – though not a majority of six – spoke of the need to raise the property tax millage rate, impose an excise tax on manufacturers and dip into the city’s savings to fill a $7.9 million shortfall.
Raising property taxes – City Administrator Fred Russell said a 1-mill increase would generate some $4 million – remains a viable option, although the commission doesn’t set the mill rate until August.
“I think we’re going to have to raise taxes,” said Commissioner Marion Williams, adding that significant cuts must follow to avoid a repeat situation next year. “Once we do that, we can’t do the same thing moving forward.”
Russell said a majority on the commission also support his recommendation that Augusta impose a 2 percent excise tax on the energy that manufacturers use to replace part of the revenue lost to a new state sales tax exemption, and imposing department-level 2.4 percent
The mill-rate hike, meanwhile, could be deferred until the summer. “If things go well, we wouldn’t have to,” Russell said.
A couple of commissioners, however, said they felt their ideas for reining in city spending are being ignored.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he was still looking for data on the growth of city department budgets – such as Recreation, which appeared to grow by $2 million in two years – and wanted the commission to “take our time, go through the budget and recognize where the money’s been spent.”
Without serious “preventative measures,” Guilfoyle said if the city continues to dip into savings “we’re going to be bankrupt in 11 years.”
The city has about $27 million in its “rainy-day fund,” from which Russell is proposing taking $4 million or more.
Commissioner Donnie Smith, who supports levying the excise tax, said the growth – and addition – of city departments ought to be closely examined for “what we are getting” out of them.
“The problem with the budget is that we’ve seen no meaningful cuts and we’re not inclined to go four million-and-a-half into the reserve fund,” Smith said.