Augusta Commission holds off on tax increase

Seven Augusta Commission members nixed a proposed tax increase Monday that would cost a typical homeowner $70 a year, leaving the countywide millage unset with just a few days to meet state deadlines.

City staffers had proposed the 2-mill increase, expected to generate some $9 million, as the only alternative to cover a $5.4 million annual deficit, partially replenish reserves and provide city employees a $1,000 raise.

The city hasn’t raised taxes more than a quarter-mill since 2006, when a 1.09-mill increase went to law enforcement. A mill is the amount charged per thousand of a property’s taxable value, or 40 percent of its assessed value. The increase would raise the millage to just more than 10.04 mills.

Advocating for the tax, Finance Director Donna Williams said the commission had held off raising taxes incrementally. “In my honest opinion, we have delayed making small corrections for a number of years,” she said.

One of three commissioners to support the increase, Bill Lockett said the money was needed, as were the raises.

“We have got to get the revenue somewhere,” Lockett said. “Let’s do what is right.”

Also voting in favor, Commissioner Bill Fennoy said District 1 residents complain about potholes, abandoned houses, overgrowth and flooding.

“They don’t mind a tax increase as long as they’re receiving the services,” he said. “They spend more money on movies, hot dogs and sodas than they would on a 2-mill increase.”

The third commissioner to favor the increase, Marion Williams, asked whether 2 mills was enough. Two mills will be .484 mills short of Augusta’s tax cap under this year’s calculations, Williams said. The cap was imposed on the local government decades ago and is now incorporated into state law.

Opposing the increase were commissioners Wayne Guilfoyle, Mary Davis, Joe Jackson, Alvin Mason, Donnie Smith, Corey Johnson and Grady Smith. Guilfoyle said the city’s expenditures had increased every year since he joined the commission, and said cuts and restructuring, such as what Sheriff Richard Roundtree and Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick had accomplished, were needed.

“Whatever we do today will not increase services to residents,” Guilfoyle said.

Donna Williams said the city has been hit with both planned and unplanned expenses: February’s ice storm, which will deplete savings between $2.5 million and $4.5 million after reimbursements from the state and federal governments; and the Augusta Richmond County Judicial Center and John Ruffin Courthouse, which costs $1 million annually to operate.

Donnie Smith said he expected a compromise on the increase, with accompanying “targeted cuts,” to happen in the next few days.

“It is serious crunch time,” Smith said, suggesting outsourcing unused recreation facilities as a way to cut. “I think there will be a compromise.”

Mayor Deke Copenhaver did not offer an opinion but noted the commission had agreed to raise taxes at a recent retreat. Interim Administrator Tameka Allen recommended the 2-mill increase, as well as the raises.

State deadlines require the commission to adopt a millage rate in the next few days. Unless the commission leaves it as is, the city is required to advertise the increase and hold three public hearings a week later.

Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick informed commissioners that the city has already obtained a 30-day extension from the Georgia Department of Revenue and that Richmond County Board of Education members had been calling because the school system needs its funds, which are collected on the same tax bills as the city’s.

The tax rates appear on the same bill but are distinct from the millage charged by Richmond County Board of Education, which tentatively set its millage at 19.972 mills Monday.

The city’s tax digest, its listing of all taxable properties, grew only slightly this year by $30 million to $4.72 billion. The motor vehicle portion was down by $50 million, likely because of changes in state laws, Williams said.

The 2-mill increase would have raised the countywide rate to 10.82 mills, including a separate .781 mill charge to fund capital outlay. Residents inside the old city limits will be charged an adjusted rate to account for a new countywide garbage service fee.

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