Second Macon tax hearing has different tone

There was no shouting, no roars from the crowd this time around. Macon’s second public hearing on a proposed tax hike was much calmer than the first. And this time, the opinions were more diverse.

While most of the residents who spoke — three of the speakers admitted they live outside the city limits — were decidedly opposed to a property tax increase, a few people favored it.

Mayor Robert Reichert has proposed keeping the property tax millage rate at 10.16 mills, which amounts to a tax increase because the county revaluations raised property values by 13.5 percent.

State law requires governments to hold three public hearings if they don’t plan to roll back the millage rate to account for the increased property values. After the hearings, the City Council will decide whether to roll back the rate to a revenue-neutral level or raise taxes by voting for a partial or no rollback.

At Tuesday’s hearing, six of the council’s 15 members did not attend: James Timley, Elaine Lucas, Lonnie Miley, Nancy White, Alveno Ross and Charles Jones.

Though Reichert said he still wants a pay scale for employees in the fiscal 2011 budget, the pressing need is the shortfall in the current budget. City officials said Macon is facing a $2 million deficit.

“I’ve got to have this,” Reichert said before the hearing. “If council rolls the rate back to revenue neutral, I don’t know how we’ll pay for this year’s budget.”

The city expected low sales tax revenue and tried to budget accordingly, but officials didn’t budget low enough, he said. There are no reserves and no other options for revenue, they said.

After the hearing, the city’s chief financial officer, Tom Barber, said there is no “reasonable” way to make up for the shortfall. If the city were to cut more workers — a suggestion made repeatedly during the public hearing — it would mean laying off “about 25 percent of the work force” to make up the $2 million gap, he said.

“It is possible to do it, but it isn’t practical,” Barber said. “It’s too late for this year.”

Councilman Mike Cranford, chairman of the council’s Appropriations Committee, said the city is paying now for things that happened earlier in the decade.

In particular, he points to the failed property revaluation in 2006, which he said costs the city about $4 million a year in lost revenue. He also cites the redistribution of the local sales tax revenue. Until the sales-tax agreement with Bibb County was renegotiated several years ago, the city received 80 percent of the money, but population loss changed the city’s share to 60 percent. Cranford said that has cost the city about $5 million a year.

Cranford said raising taxes may be unavoidable: “There is no Plan B.”

Reichert told the crowd of fewer than 40 people Tuesday that if the city keeps the millage rate at 10.16 mills and doesn’t roll back the millage rate, the owner of a $100,000 home would pay an additional $48.36 a year.

That was of no comfort to many who spoke. Several residents and real estate agents said that the county’s property revaluation, which the city does not control, was unfair. Some said the drive-by appraisal process set the value as high as $200,000 on some homes not worth much more than $100,000.

Paul Williams said he had that happen to him and warned the council that raising taxes would endanger the proposed special local option sales tax for the new county courthouse.

“I think it’s very short-sighted of council to trade the SPLOST vote for the property tax,” Williams said. “If you don’t roll back, there are going to be people who do everything in their power to beat the SPLOST.”

Merritt Johnson, who represents the Bellevue Concerned Citizens Community Organization, said he is upset because he hasn’t seen enough services to justify the tax increase.

“We see council members at our meetings come election time,” he said, “but afterwards, we don’t see no one. When are we going to get assistance and not just a lot of talking?”

Among those who spoke in favor of the tax increase, Lee Johnson — no relation to Merritt Johnson — said the city has to invest in itself.

“I see the city crumbling and failing all around me, and I feel like the taxes we pay represent an investment in our future,” she said. “Cities that don’t invest in themselves are destined to fail.”

The city’s third and final public hearing is at 3 p.m. March 16.