Macon residents speak out against planned tax increase

More than 100 people — many of them visibly angry — packed Monday’s public hearing at Macon City Hall to speak out against a proposed tax increase.

“I love this city, but I am scared to death about what’s happening,” said Jason Moss, who identified himself as a Macon-Bibb County firefighter.

In recent weeks, the City Council voted to propose setting the millage rate at 10.16 mills — the current rate — which would represent a tax increase after last year’s Bibb County property tax revaluations raised values by 13.5 percent. State law requires governments to hold three public hearings if they do not plan to roll back the millage rate to account for the increased property values.

After the hearings, the council will decide whether to raise taxes, partially roll back the millage rate or roll it back to a revenue-neutral level.

“We’re in a recession,” said resident Mark Thornton, who complained about city spending, including $80,000 for new golf carts at Bowden Golf Course. “Eighty thousand dollars for golf carts? I have an idea: Sell the golf course. Don’t raise my taxes,” he said. “If you do, I promise that everyone who votes for it can easily be replaced in the next election.”

The council chambers erupted. When the cheers died down, Macon resident Beverly Olson was already at the microphone. Olson, who said she has lived in Macon 32 years, blamed city officials for people fleeing to nearby counties that are “more hospitable.”

“You should want to make people feel good about staying in Macon to fight some of the problems we’ve had since (former Mayor) Jack Ellis was in office,” she said. “Macon is a diamond in the rough.”

A few minutes earlier, Mayor Robert Reichert told the crowd that Macon needs additional revenue for things such as an employee pay scale. He encouraged residents to be open to a tax increase.

But he was outnumbered. He was the only person who spoke in favor of higher Macon taxes.

Among those opposing any increase was local radio talk show host Chris Krok, who handed out signs that read “No more.”

“(The tax increase) is an assault on the taxpayers of Middle Georgia. We’re fighting back, and we’re fighting mad,” Krok said, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. “You spend like a drunken sailor.”

Krok shouted, “We need some help down here!”

Many speakers lamented the fact that they also face proposed tax increases from Bibb County and the school board this year as the economy struggles to improve. Others used the hearing as an opportunity to vent about other problems not directly related to city taxes: the county’s property tax appeals, flooding houses, the size of the council, massage parlors, upside-down mortgages, the quality of the city’s buses and roads.

Jay Miller, a downtown Macon resident, said his property value increased by 75 percent in the recent revaluation. He appealed, he said, which reduced his value to a 55 percent increase. But he still said it’s too high.

“I can’t sell my house for what they say I could,” Miller said. “I wish I could.”

Neil Jackson said he and his wife likely will lose their house to foreclosure.

“But I’m not worried. We bought a house and 5 acres in Monroe County,” Jackson said to applause.

Though agreeing with the general consensus of the crowd, Macon developer Tony Long offered a calmer voice to the fray.

“I hope you listen to everything these people are saying,” Long said. “Y’all cut the taxes, please.”

Not every council member heard the pleas.

Council members Ed DeFore, Elaine Lucas, Lonnie Miley and Mike Cranford did not attend Monday’s hearing. The rest of the council was present but did not address the crowd.

Reached after the hearing, Councilman Rick Hutto said the hearing only confirmed his original intent to vote for a full rollback.

“I don’t think there’s any way — while the school board and the County Commission are raising taxes — that the City Council should raise taxes,” he said.

Councilman Virgil Watkins expressed a similar sentiment, saying he has been leaning toward a full rollback. He said Monday’s public hearing “pushed me over the top.”

“I think, as a city, we need to find more creative mechanisms for raising the money to accomplish what we need,” he said.

Councilman Alveno Ross was more measured in his response, saying he needs to see more information before making a decision about the tax rate.

“As much as I respected the people who spoke tonight — and I believe it is an important part of this process — there are losses of revenue that have nothing to do with local control,” he said. “It is bad timing. I agree with the public about that.”

The city’s next public hearings on the proposed tax increase are scheduled for March 9 and March 16.

To contact writer Chris Horne, call 744-4494.