Tax rollback is considered

Most Augusta commissioners favor rolling back to taxpayers some, but not all, of the additional unexpected $2 million the city will receive from the growth of the 2007 Richmond County property tax digest.

And that means you'll probably see only a small increase on this year's tax bill.

Commissioners said they want to use the additional money to replenish the emergency reserve fund and fill essential vacant positions in public works frozen to balance this year's general-fund budget. Then they would consider reducing the 0.34-mill tax increase built into the budget.

"If we could make a rollback and feel comfortable and not have to go into our reserves if something catastrophic happened, I would be for that," said Commissioner Don Grantham. "But we need to start rebuilding our reserves."

The assessed (40 percent) value of taxable property in Richmond County rose from $4.59 billion last year to $4.86 billion this year, Chief Tax Appraiser Calvin Hicks announced Monday.

Mayor Pro Tem Betty Beard agreed that commissioners need to replenish the reserve fund. She also doesn't want to roll back taxes as was done last year, only to end up with a budget shortfall that led to cutbacks this year.

Neither does Commissioner Andy Cheek, who thinks the money should be used for the upkeep of the Garden City.

"I would like to see us in a position to maintain our roads and ditches," he said. "Public works and trees and landscaping have been suffering under the hiring freeze. I'd like to see us staff those positions."

Mr. Cheek said commissioners need to decide whether they're going to take care of the city and make it a place people want to come to or let it become a second-rate city.

"I'm not committed to anything right now, but I think it's stupid to continue to understaff important positions for maintenance of roads and drainage," he said. "We're going to eventually have a tropical event, and we're going to have flooding because we have not been able to maintain the ditches."

Commissioner Joe Bowles wants to see the final numbers plugged into the budget to see where the city stands and make sure there's enough money to cover key services and replenish the reserve fund.

"And the rest, I think we ought to give back to taxpayers," he said.

But some money needs to go to maintain entrances to the city, such as Interstate 20 and Washington Road, which are in a "deplorable" condition, he said.

Commissioner Bernard Harper also wants to see all the numbers before committing to anything, but said his first instinct is to roll back property taxes.

Commissioners Jerry Brigham and Marion Williams are at opposite ends of the spectrum as far as where the additional money should go.

"I'm in favor of a rollback," Mr. Brigham said. "I don't know whether all of it will be rolled back, but I fully expect part of it to be rolled back, and that's the way I will vote."

"I wouldn't want to roll anything back," Mr. Williams said. "When you roll back, you've got to turn around the next year and increase taxes. I think we ought to hold on to it and do something to encourage people to come into Augusta. We need to do some economic development that will increase our revenue."

Commissioner Calvin Holland said he just wants to make sure commissioners do what's best for the community.

The 6 percent growth in this year's tax digest follows several years of sluggish growth.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.