The 2-mill increase, effectively $70 more annually for the owner of a $100,000 house who claims the standard homestead exemption, would be the largest Richmond County has seen in a decade. The last time the local government raised the mill rate by more than a quarter percent was in 2006, when a 1-mill hike went to law enforcement.
Some commissioners see the increase as unavoidable, with city departments already cut to the bone and the city’s reserves down this year more than $5 million, mostly to balance the year’s budget.
“We are in a tough position right now, because I don’t want to go into reserves to make up that deficit,” Commissioner Mary Davis said. “The hard thing is, nobody wants to raise taxes, but nobody wants to see a decrease in services.”
Finance Director Donna Williams and Interim Administrator Tameka Allen discussed their recommendation for the increase at length during the commission’s June 27 retreat. Included in the proposal are $1,000 pay increases for all employees and reducing budgeted departmental cuts for the year from 2.4 percent to 1.5 percent.
The increase will raise the millage rate to just over 10 mills, which is higher than Columbia County’s 6.4 mills but still lower than current countywide rates in Fulton, Bulloch, Chatham, Dougherty, Macon-Bibb, Athens-Clarke and Columbus-Muscogee.
Commissioner Bill Lockett said the city needed not only a 2-mill rate hike but the addition of an excise tax on manufacturers for energy to replace funds lost to a new statewide exemption. Both items, with the excise tax designated for law enforcement, blight and transit, were approved as “action items” at the retreat.
The exemption, included in legislation authored in part by mayor-elect Sen. Hardie Davis, will reduce Augusta’s revenue by $4 million annually when fully implemented in 2016. The city was using the funds to offset property taxes.
“We’re about $8 million down,” Lockett said. “With the 2-mill increase and the excise tax it will put us in a pretty good position.”
Also on the table for property owners is a stormwater fee under development by the city’s Engineering Department. The fee, typically a few dollars a month, is charged based on the square footage of impermeable surface such as driveways and rooftops, but it hasn’t come before the commission yet for approval.
While nearly $5 million from the millage increase would likely go toward paying down the year’s deficit, taxpayers will get to see something tangible from the tax hike, Lockett said.
“It’s a negative impact on property owners in a sense, but by virtue of cleaning up the city, getting rid of the overgrown lots and so forth, property values will most certainly go up,” he said.
While the increase is inevitable, taxpayers clamoring for another solution – such as streamlining city departments to cut costs – may get some relief from an upcoming audit of the city’s Recreation, Parks and Facilities department.
“There will be some consolidation of personnel, some changes made,” Lockett said.
Commissioner Grady Smith said departmental waste ought to be reduced instead of property taxes raised, particularly on the numerous factories and large commercial taxpayers.
“We’ve got to be business friendly, to make sure we’ve got jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said.
Should commissioners opt to increase the mill rate, they’re required to advertise the increase and hold several public hearings to meet state deadlines for property tax bills to go out in late August or early September.
IN OTHER ACTION
The tax discussion is the first item at a noon called commission meeting and closed-door legal meeting preceding today’s committee meetings. Up for discussion at the committee meeting agendas are:
• Proposed naming schemes for the numerous conference and training rooms included in ongoing renovations of Augusta Municipal Building.
• A $2.75 quarterly fee for Virginia College students to use Augusta Public Transit
• Authorizing the law department to negotiate a revision of Augusta’s contract with Automated Data Processing to exclude automated health and wellness benefits services, to be replaced by three city benefits specialist positions
• Reassigning road naming and addressing from Planning and Development to Information Technology
• A beautification project for Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge Road around Fort Gordon
• Continued funding for on-call tree removal and maintenance using $700,000 in Transportation Investment Act discretionary funds
• A presentation on progress made on redevelopment at Regency Mall
• A contract with Imperial Theatre for spending special purpose, local option sales tax 6 funds
• A presentation from IFS Securities on minority inclusion in Augusta Utilities’ upcoming bond refinancing
• A salary adjustment and retention program for Augusta Fire Department