Originally created 10/10/01

Tax hike delayed

The Augusta Commission won't be raising property taxes this year, which is hardly surprising given that five commissioners are up for re-election Nov. 6 and taxes are due Nov. 8.

In order to get through this awkward political period a tax increase is being put off until 2002. Make no mistake - when commissioners and city officials openly discuss the need to hike taxes in the next fiscal year, you can be sure they're already planning to do just that.

How well the public will accept the levy boost, even in an off-election year, is altogether another matter. Taxpayers are still looking for the efficiencies that consolidation was supposed to bring them nearly six years ago.

This raises another ugly issue. Taxpayers will usually go along with tax increases if they trust their government and are satisfied with the efficiency of services they're receiving. But the Augusta government, by and large, is neither trusted nor efficient.

Fairly or not, huge numbers of Augusta taxpayers hold their government in such utter contempt that they hate to send it even a nickel of tax money.

Yet on the face of it, the commission next year will likely have a strong case to make for more revenues, particularly since it's a virtual certainty, in light of war and recession, that sales tax revenues will take a serious hit.

Even this year, to avoid a tax hike, the commission will be dipping into the $700,000 reserve fund to keep three key city offices - the district attorney, the tax commissioner and the clerk of civil and magistrate court - from going out of business. The Sheriff's Department is also in desperate need of more patrol officers in these perilous times.

Any money manager will tell you it's irresponsible to raid reserves to pay for government services that should come out of the general fund. What happens if there's an unexpected emergency? Since Sept. 11, that's not such a hypothetical question anymore.

Also, commissioners must be certain not to put themselves in the same awful jam Chatham County commissioners are in. Instead of saying "no" to department heads' wish lists and poorly run programs, Chatham paid for them with reserve funds - and now the county faces a $2.5 million budget shortfall with nothing in the emergency till to help bridge the gap.

This is (cynically) reassuring on one point. There apparently are some local Georgia governments that are even more poorly run than Augusta's.

By putting the tax increase off for a year, the commission has bought itself some time to bring the long-promised efficiencies to fruition and convince property owners that raising their mill rate is in their best interest.


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