Originally created 02/16/99

Barnes unveils tax-limit plan



ATLANTA -- So-called "back-door" tax increases used by local governments to raise revenue without increasing millage could all but end under legislation Gov. Roy Barnes unveiled Monday.

Under the Democratic governor's "Property Taxpayer's Bill of Rights" -- long advocated by Republicans -- city, county and school board officials would have to roll back millage to match any increases in property tax digests caused by land reassessments.

To raise more revenue, city councils, county commissioners and school boards would have to increase tax rates, and could only do that after a series of public hearings.

Officials who violate the law would lose their public salaries for the period in which they fail to comply. And taxpayers who fight assessments and win reductions of 15 percent or more could recover their legal costs from the government.

"All of these measures say taxpayers will be treated fairly and with dignity," Mr. Barnes told reporters at a Capitol press conference. "It will cut down on back-door, silent tax increases."

The "bill of rights" is Mr. Barnes' second attempt this session to assess penalties against local government officials.

The House last week passed legislation calling for fines and possibly jail time for officials that violate the state's open meetings and records laws.

The "bill of rights" -- which also places the burden of proof in assessment challenges on government officials -- is a companion piece to legislation the governor filed last week doubling the homestead exemption from $2,000 to $4,000.

Lawmakers had warned that local officials could recoup the increased exemption by raising property values.

Augusta-Richmond County Commissioner Jerry Brigham called Mr. Barnes' bill an example of trying to run local governments from Atlanta.

"I don't want to raise taxes either, but I realize the cost of operating local government goes up every year," he said.

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.