Originally created 07/25/99

New tax credits have ups, downs



First, the good news.

Though your property assessment may have gone up this year, your tax bill might still go down, according to tax officials.

And if the assessment on your primary residence didn't increase, and you claim a homestead exemption, your tax bill will go down.

"Many taxpayers this year have a concern because their assessments have increased and are worried their tax bills are going up," said Jack McAdams, financial officer with the Richmond County Tax Commissioner's office. "However, the state is giving a $50.98 credit to each homeowner who is also homesteading their property. So all taxpayers who were living in their home on Jan. 1 and have a homestead exemption can expect their bill to go down by that much."

The $50.98 will be credited against the taxes. Homeowners do not have to file anything to receive this credit if they have a homestead exemption, Mr. McAdams said.

The tax credit on a homestead exemption can increase $2,000 a year up to an $18,000 credit off the 40 percent assessed value of the property. And that could mean as much as $458.82 off the tax bill over the next nine years.

"THE PROBLEM IS,no one has any idea which years the state Legislature will enact anything," Mr. McAdams said. "They could go up to as much as $450 off your tax bill, or it might be zero. So we're just taking a chance at what the governor is going to give us as a credit over the next nine years."

Now the bad news.

Property owners such as Carmine and Jimmie Gonnella won't get the credit on their rental property on Russell Street. The couple's duplexes were reassessed $26,000 higher this year to $206,000.

"We had them on the market for a year, and the best offer they got was $100,000," Mr. Gonnella said.

Other bad news is that since consolidation, the amount of money the school board, local government and state have billed Augusta property owners by year's end will have increased from $81.5 million in 1995 to $96.5 million -- less this year's additional homestead exemption credit.

About 68 percent of that money goes to the school board and 31 percent to the local government. The state gets about 1 percent.

The money goes to help run the city government -- including $13 million for public safety and the courts -- pay its bond debt and buy capital equipment. The school system's share goes to help run the schools and pay bond debt.

PROPERTY-TAX MONEYis only one source of revenue for the city and school board. Sales taxes, franchise taxes, fines and fees, charges for services, grants and the sale of licenses and permits also will help fund the city's $82.75 million general-fund budget this year.

The state funds 64.89 percent of the school system's budget, which has burgeoned to $184 million in fiscal year 1999-2000.

The total assessed value increase in the county's tax digest between 1998 and this year is $176 million, according to Chief Tax Appraiser Harrison Sears.

About $141 million of that is from reassessments and the rest from new construction, Mr. Sears said.

Augusta Administrator Randy Oliver, who prevailed with the city's finance committee last week in a debate with Mayor Bob Young over keeping this year's tax rates at last year's levels, said you get what you pay for.

"If you want to be the second-largest or second-best or first-best city in the state, you can't be 126th in the state in millage," he said. "You've got to make sure that the financial resources are there to do it. Without them, you're just kidding yourselves. We can't provide the services without the revenue we need."

MR. YOUNG PROPOSEDdecreasing taxes by the amount city government revenues will increase this year over 1999 budget projections because of reassessments -- $322,544.

Mr. Oliver said that's exactly what the old city of Augusta did, which led to the neglect of infrastructure that the consolidated government inherited and must deal with.

He also notes that the Richmond County school system drives the total tax rate up in Augusta.

Richmond County ranks 52nd in the state in county maintenance and operation and school board millage out of the 159 counties when the millage of both is considered. But without school millage, Richmond County ranks 126th.

Richmond County school millage ranks 11th in the state.

MOST OF THE PROPERTYtaxes collected in Augusta go to the school board, Mr. Oliver said.

"They write the check out to Augusta-Richmond County, and people think all that money comes to Augusta-Richmond County and the mayor and board of commissioners," he said.

About 65 percent of what the city does get goes to elected officials who use the money to fund their departments, particularly public safety and the courts.

"I wish people had to write two checks," he said. "I wish they had to write one check to the school board and one check to the county. But it's not economical to do that. You would have to send separate bills, and the cost would be substantially greater.

"But I would ask everybody to look at their tax bills and see how much goes to the school board and how much goes to the county."

Mr. Oliver also notes that Augusta ranks 38th in the state in library funding. Richmond County gave $1,535,189 to the library or $7.59 per person in 1997, the latest date for which such rankings were available.

NEARBY COLUMBIA COUNTY,with a higher millage for maintenance and operation, gave $4.34 per resident.

"In an ideal world, if your millage was 38th, you'd be 38th in each individual category," he said. "It doesn't always work that way, but you can't be 126th on millage and No. 1 in providing library services or indigent care because the financial resources aren't there."

Augusta also spends $2.5 million a year on indigent care and $2 million on public transit, neither of which Columbia County funds.

The challenge to Augusta government is to become more efficient in providing services, Mr. Oliver said.

"And I think we've started to do that," he said. "But we also have to understand if we're going to provide additional services, those things don't come for free."

Sylvia Cooper covers Richmond County government for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3228 or sylviaco@augustachronicle.com.