Opposition to Augusta’s proposed property tax increase is rooted in a lack of confidence in city government, according to one critic who plans to attend a public hearing Monday on the increase.
“Until the commission starts running like a business, which is what it is, we’re going to continue to have tax increases and we’re going to deplete our funds,” said Kenny Echols, a west Augusta homeowner who lost a 2012 bid for a commission seat.
The Augusta Commission voted July 30 to increase the countywide millage to 9.788 mills, an approximate annual increase in county taxes of $122.50 on a $200,000 home.
It is required by state law to hold three public hearings. Two are Monday: at 10 a.m. at Warren Road Community Center and 6 p.m. at Henry Brigham Senior Center.
Echols said he hopes to ask officials why they’re raising taxes instead of cutting costs, but he doesn’t expect the hearings to accomplish much, with the west Augusta forum scheduled during a time most people are at work.
“The Warren Road people are the tax base, and to have it there at 10 o’clock in the morning is not good,” Echols said. “To get things going, you’ve got to have community support, and they don’t have that right now.”
Facing an operating deficit for this year of more than $5 million, diminishing reserves and minimal growth in the tax digest, seven commissioners compromised July 30 on a 1.75-mill tax increase accompanied by a one-time $500 bonus for employees. The increase will generate about $7.9 million after tax bills go out next month.
The increase should be apparent to anyone who owns property, although nearly 30,000 homeowners whose property taxes are paid by their mortgage company won’t see a tax bill, said Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick.
The lenders will pass along the increase in the form of a higher monthly mortgage payment spread through the year, but the companies, even those who pay Richmond County early to get available discounts, typically don’t raise the payment amount until year’s end, Kendrick said.
Commissioner Mary Davis, who helped broker the tax compromise, stressed that Augusta “can’t get back into this position ever again,” and she said she hopes the public meetings provide a good opportunity for communication about the increase.
“I think it will be a good opportunity to have open communication,” Davis said, “to ensure everyone has all the details concerning the budget, and also what our future holds.”
Deputy Finance Director Tim Schroer said city officials will be present to provide general budget information and answer questions about the process.
Since setting the tentative millage July 30, commissioners could lower the proposed rate but not increase it above 9.788 mills, he said.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who missed the tax vote, said individual commissioners’ efforts to slash the budget often were ignored. One might spend “countless hours” devising ways to cut, only to have the proposal “pushed down” when it reaches the full commission, Guilfoyle said.
Homeowner Taylor Bryant said he opposed the tax increase because “there’s plenty of things we could cut and streamline to at least make it better … I think this town wastes a lot of money on things that we don’t need, and a tax increase is kind of an easy way out.”
Commissioner Grady Smith said he probably won’t attend the hearings, but said his phone number was readily available for anyone to call.
He voted in favor of the increase, Augusta’s first in seven years, but said it must be accompanied by “tightening our belts.”
“Most people don’t understand why we’re raising taxes,” Commissioner Marion Williams said. When a few have asked, Williams said he has attempted to explain, but said bad decisions such as a recent vote to “equalize” fire department wages continue to threaten efforts to save.
As other departments line up for raises, “I think we opened up a Pandora’s box when we gave the fire chief that kind of money,” he said.