Still facing an unsteady economy that’s already hit local governments in the wallet, Macon, Bibb County and the school board will soon decide whether they will keep the financial windfall from the county’s recent property revaluations or roll back the millage rates to offset that extra money.
Basically, the three have three options: leave the millage rate the same, roll it back partially or roll it back enough to offset all the money they would gain from the revaluation. In other words, if the governments don’t roll back enough to match the increase in property values, it essentially is a tax increase.
If they decide not to roll back the rate or only partially roll it back, they each must hold public hearings. The three governing bodies expect to receive the final tax digest in the next few days from the county tax commissioner.
Pay scale or bust
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Macon Mayor Robert Reichert will propose a partial rollback of the millage rate to fund a pay scale for city employees.
Though expensive to put in place, Reichert said the city will be able afford to continue the pay scale after it’s established. He said the pay scale also would make the city more efficient and, in the case of the police department, safer.
“We have eight-, nine-, 10-year veterans of the police department making exactly the same as someone who started yesterday because we don’t have a pay scale,” he said. “It’s become a disincentive to stay.”
The mayor said the city pays a lot to train employees who then take their skills elsewhere.
“We want to keep our best and our brightest,” he said. “Everyone wants to be proud of their hometown, but that doesn’t come for free.”
While Reichert favors a partial millage rate rollback, the decision is not his alone. The City Council must weigh in.
Though Councilwoman Nancy White said she’s waiting to see the tax digest, she admits the prospect of a property tax increase bothers her.
“I would prefer a (full) rollback because of the situation with the recession,” she said. “How much more can people handle?”
Specifically, White said rising taxes coupled with questions about rising crime could cause more people to move out of the city.
“It could be a perfect storm,” she cautioned.
City Council President Miriam Paris, a Realtor with Stuckey Realty, said property taxes usually don’t impact a homebuyer’s decision as much as other factors such as the quality of education. She plans to review the city’s financial report and the tax digest before making a decision about the millage rate, which is currently 10.16 mills.
Living within their means
In Bibb County, there are two millage rates: one that every property owner in the county pays, currently 11.6739 mills, and an additional rate paid only in the unincorporated area to pay for fire service, which is set at 2.56 mills.
In 2008, the county rolled the rate back 2 mills to refund $8 million in surplus special purpose local option sales tax revenue. Though intended to be a temporary relief, that millage rate is still in effect.
Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen said Wednesday he wants to roll back the millage as far as the county can afford.
“If we can’t roll back 100 percent,” he said, “let’s roll back as far as we can within reason.”
Commissioner Lonzy Edwards voiced a similar opinion.
“I don’t think we should use this to pad the county coffers,” he said.
Edwards said he would only support the return of the 2 mills that were temporarily removed to refund the SPLOST overage. With the coming attempt to pass a new SPLOST, he said it’s especially important now to have the taxpayers’ trust that commissioners will only take as much tax dollars as they need.
“We’ve got to act like everybody else,” he said. “We have to live within our means.”
Adjusting for an uncertain future
Though currently set at 19.79 mills, voters in Bibb County capped the school system’s millage rate at 22 mills. Most school systems are capped at 20 mills, Bibb County schools Superintendent Sharon Patterson said.
Like city and county officials, Patterson won’t know what the millage rate will settle at until the tax digest comes in, but she is concerned that the tax revenue shortfall and state budget cuts have put the school system in a tight spot.
And it isn’t just this year that she has her eye on. The next two years could be even more difficult because of impending state budget cuts and the $6.2 million in stimulus money the system will stop receiving in 2012.
When the tax digest comes in, she said she’ll take it before the school board for their review.
“I’ll be trying to help them make an informed decision, but ultimately,” she said, “they have to make a decision today to position the system for the future.”
For school board member Gary Bechtel, the tax digest information is vital to his decision about setting the millage rate.
“My first instinct is to roll it back, but I’ll have to see the tax digest before I can commit to any path,” he said.
To contact writer Chris Horne, call 744-4494.