Originally created 11/27/03

Property tax rise is expected



Unless Augusta's economy takes an unexpected turn for the better, property owners can expect their taxes to increase next year, after a Wednesday decision by the Augusta Commission.

That proposed tax increase, which would not formally be approved until summer, is divided between public safety and general fund operations and amounts to about $22.05 on a $100,000 house with homestead exemption.

It will raise about $975,000 to fund ambulance and 911 center operations and an additional $1.1 million to help balance general fund expenditures, including rising health care premiums, indigent defense costs and a 3 percent cost-of-living pay raise for city employees effective May 1.

"We have trimmed the budget to the minimum," Augusta Finance Director David Persaud told elected officials shortly before they voted for the $101.4 million spending plan.

The budget was approved by commissioners on the eve of Thanksgiving Day, and it includes a tax increase of more than half a mill - 0.6302 mills.

The balanced budget also sets aside money for operations at a new animal shelter, while paying to continue a threatened nutrition program that feeds seniors. It pays for additional deputies and jailers at the Richmond County Sheriff's Office.

"It's a compromise," said Commissioner Steve Shepard, who also serves as chairman of the board's finance committee. "We think you have to do things gradually."

But that gradual approach left several things unfunded in the 2004 budget, such as money to operate a new Wheeler Road-area park - Sand Hills Park - and funds to continue operations at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of African-American History.

"We ain't got no choice, and I don't mind getting back to it later," Commissioner Willie Mays said.

Of the seven commissioners present for Wednesday's budget meeting, he was one of six who voted to approve the spending plan. Only Commissioner Tommy Boyles voted against, and Commissioners Ulmer Bridges, Lee Beard and Andy Cheek were absent.

Asked whether commissioners plan to amend the spending plan, Mr. Mays responded, "Heck, yeah. We always do."

But the budget's basic construction plan is expected to stay the same. It does not pay for a reclassification that would bring government salaries more in line with those in the private sector. Instead, it relies on substantial growth in the tax digest - the total value of properties in Richmond County - to fund those salary changes.

It seems unlikely that such reclassification will be funded. The digest's value dropped 0.4 percent this year despite growth projections of 3.5 percent.

And although Augusta's tax assessor is predicting zero growth in the digest next year, the 2004 budget again relies on 3.5 percent growth. If that growth falls short, commissioners will have to dip into general fund reserves by as much as $1.4 million.

Commissioners say the budget indicates their optimism about the local economy.

"We think the economy will improve," Mr. Shepard said.

The new budget, unlike one that was being considered last week, uses substantially less in the way of general fund reserves - a governmental savings account that can be tapped for one-time use but also serves as emergency backup for city operations.

Instead of using $3.7 million in reserves, commissioners count on using $1.4 million, something they say indicates conservative and prudent fiscal planning.

TAX FORMULA

What does the budgeted tax increase mean for you? Use this formula to figure out an approximation of how much your property taxes are expected to go up in 2004. This formula does not account for any state credits or multiple homestead exemptions.

The value of your home:

x .40 percent

Equals the assessed value:

- $5,000 for homestead exemption:

x 0.0006302 mill rate

Equals the estimated increase in your taxes

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.