$24 millage increase OK'd for now

Augusta city commissioners adopted a tentative millage Thursday that will mean a $24.68 increase this year on a $100,000 house with homestead exemption.

However, that rate was adopted with the understanding that commissioners might reduce the increase to $17.50, if City Administrator Fred Russell can reduce expenses or find other revenue sources within the next few weeks.

The rate increase would be added to the current tax levy, which is $974.19 on a $100,000 home in the city district, and $825 in the county.

There will be three public hearings before millage is finally set on July 28.

The motion on the city's millage increase passed 7-2 with Commissioners Joe Bowles and Jerry Brigham voting against it. Commissioner Johnny Hatney was absent.

When commissioners adopted this year's budget in December, the proposed millage increase to fund it would have added $48.76 to this year's tax bill on a $100,000 house. Then the city ended 2007 with a $5.1 million surplus, so Mr. Russell proposed using $3 million of that to reduce the proposed millage increase and put the rest into the general fund as a cushion against higher fuel costs and escalating medical and food costs for jail inmates. He insisted that was a "very prudent and conservative" course.

"We don't know what the future holds," he said.

Mr. Bowles, Mr. Brigham and Commissioner Don Grantham argued the surplus should be used to eliminate any property-tax increase at all this year.

"I think this is the year we look seriously at having no tax increase," Mr. Brigham said.

Mr. Bowles said the government should look at other sources of revenue rather than coming back time and again to taxpayers.

"I'm sick and tired of charging every citizen in Augusta to make up for what only certain citizens are using, whether that be parks and recreation, transit, other services, the golf course, business licenses," he said.

"It's time that we look at upping our fees for some of these events. I think you can pay $30 a year for membership at Diamond Lakes. At other gyms, it's $30 a month."

Mr. Russell said they should look at that when setting next year's budget.

Commissioner Alvin Mason made the motion to approve Mr. Russell's proposed 0.705 mill increase. An amendment was added by Mr. Grantham for Mr. Russell to look for ways to reduce the millage even further before the final vote July 28.

After the meeting, Mr. Brigham said the government should look at cutting costs for the rest of this year and next year rather than raising fees and taxes.

"We had about a $12,000-a-day increase in expenses from 2006 to 2007," he said. "I'm assuming we're going to have that same increase in 2008 or more, and I think we need to work on reducing that daily cost."

IN OTHER ACTION Thursday, Bonnie Cox, partner with Cherry, Bekaert & Holland, presented highlights of financial data for 2007 that indicated "a good positive trend" in city finances. For example:

- The city had a 26 percent increase in general operating cash and short-term investments at Dec. 31. And, including money due from other funds at the end of the year, the city had $32.9 million in general-fund cash and temporary investments, compared with $26.16 million at the end of 2006.

- At Dec. 31, the city had 105 days of operating cash reserves, compared with 88 days at the end of 2006.

- The city's unreserved fund balance increased 19 percent, which brought it back to the 2003 level after its low point in 2005.

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

What's Next

The public will have three opportunities to be heard before Augusta commissioners hold the final vote July 28 to set millage.