Dozens speak against tax hikes in Bibb

Dozens of Bibb County residents took aim at 1-mill tax increases proposed separately by the county school board and county commissioners.

In all, about 90 people attended the four public hearings on the tax increases held Tuesday. None of the speakers favored a tax increase.

The proposed tax increases come on the heels of a contentious property revaluation, the first full assessment since 2001. Instead of a revenue-neutral “rollback rate,” the schools, county and city of Macon each have proposed tax increases for the current budget year, which ends in June.

Bibb schools

Ron Collier, the school system’s chief financial officer, said crucial state funding, which supported about 68 percent of the school system’s funding in 2002, supplied just 51 percent in 2009. He called the current economic climate “unprecedented times.”

“As state revenue begins to suffer, so does the school district,” he said.

After the revaluation, the school system had the option of fully rolling back the old millage rate from 19.79 mills to 16.945 mills to offset the higher property values. But doing so would have meant about $72 million in collections for the school system, short of the $77 million needed to meet the budget, officials said.

Collier said since the school system adopted its budget this past June, the state has cut the school system’s funding by $9 million, which has required the system to make internal cuts and require other revenue sources.

Feb. 18, the school board voted 6-2 to adopt a 17.945 millage rate, a 1-mill increase over the rollback rate. The increase will mean a property owner of a $100,000 home will pay $33 more in school taxes.

At the school board hearings, six residents asked the board not to raise taxes in a tough economy.

“I’ve laid off 50 percent of my work force. It’s difficult to come here and see a (tax) increase,” said small-business owner Lan Heath. “Your tax base doesn’t have it to give. What’s going on has shaken taxpayers to the core. We don’t trust what’s going on within this board.”

He also said residents supported an special local option sales tax in November to help build five new elementary schools, hoping that move would eliminate any millage increase.

“My medicine, light bill, water bill, everything is going up,” argued property owner Jessie Coley. “If we don’t have it, we can’t pay it.”

The school system has its final hearing at 5 p.m. March 9, followed by a called board meeting at 6 p.m. to officially set its millage rate.

Bibb County

The County Commission’s night hearing drew the most speakers — 19 — and some of the most vehement words.

Among them was Bob Fountain, who said he has had to cut salaries, benefits and expenses at a small company he runs with his son.

“Everybody’s talking about more money, and we can’t get more money without cutting expenses. When the reval went through, we heard ‘This is going to be revenue neutral, don’t worry about it, we’re not going to take a windfall.’ ... Well, we’re doing what we said we weren’t going to do. And the timing is awful,” Fountain said.

Another resident, Bart Tharpe, said people can’t print money to pay bills, as the federal government does.

“People are moving,” he said. “People can’t afford to stay in Bibb County. What are you going to do, raise taxes? That’s absurd.”

Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart said Tuesday night that an earlier proposal to pay toward long-deferred salary increases is dead.

That proposal, which would ramp up toward a $5.6-million-a-year increase in salaries and benefits, accounted for much of the need for the 1-mill increase.

Hart said he didn’t know how the commission ultimately would vote on the millage rate. If no tax increase is approved, he said, the county is still short about $1.8 million to $2 million from the revenue needed for a balanced budget. If the county eliminated about $700,000 planned to buy properties encroaching on Robins Air Force Base, it would still be as much as $1.3 million short for the current fiscal year.

County Commissioners Joe Allen and Lonzy Edwards both said they can’t support a tax increase this year. Asked how he would close the current-year budget gap, Edwards said, “You’ve got to cut like everyone else.”

Another commissioner, Bert Bivins, said he’s keeping an open mind and plans to hear from people at the final hearing March 16 as well as talk to the county’s finance officials.

Earlier Tuesday, Edwards said he wants to consider asking the state to review the assessment process to bolster faith in how property was revalued. Commissioners could consider that measure at their next meeting in two weeks.

“What I wanted to do is alleviate some of the concerns and put it to rest,” Edwards said.

Commissioner Elmo Richardson, chairman of the commission’s Finance Committee, said Tuesday the county couldn’t plan furloughs or other cuts until it knew what the tax digest was — information that was available just four weeks ago. Two-thirds of the fiscal year is already over, making it difficult to make substantial cuts, he said.

Richardson said critics of the 1-mill increase above the full rollback don’t acknowledge a 2-mill decrease in earlier years. His figures show the county’s proposed tax rate of 11.003 is the lowest millage rate in more than a decade.

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.