Bibb rejects tax hike for now, but larger one looming next year

Bibb County commissioners on Tuesday rejected a 1-mill tax increase for this fiscal year in light of harsh public opinion, but county leaders began openly discussing a tax increase of twice that size for next year’s budget.

Tuesday night’s vote slashes about $1.8 million in expenses from the current budget, enough to roll back the tax rate so the county doesn’t claim a windfall from this year’s property reassessment. About three dozen people watched county commissioners to ensure taxes wouldn’t go up.

“Thank you to all of you for hearing us,” said Cheryl Lewis, president of the Middle Georgia Association of Realtors. “Thank you on behalf of the people who live in Bibb County and pay taxes.”

The unanimous vote means the Bibb County government’s taxes, for the average property owner, won’t go up this fiscal year.

Next year’s budget could be a different story, though. Tuesday morning, commissioners began discussing a tax increase twice the size of the proposed increase for this year just to balance next year’s budget.

“We feel that we’ve got to do the 2-mill increase?” County Commissioner Joe Allen asked. Chairman Sam Hart replied, “We’ve got to look at it.”

Finance Committee Chairman Elmo Richardson, who had to leave Tuesday’s meetings before next year’s budget was discussed, said the county’s property tax rate has been subsidized by excess sales tax collections for the past two years.

Richardson said the special purpose local option sales tax money has now all been refunded, and the loss of those subsidies will leave a $7.6 million hole in the budget that goes into effect July 1.

“I know that replacing $7.6 million won’t be easy,” Richardson said. “That’s essentially what we took out of SPLOST money and substituted that for ad valorem tax. Bibb County taxpayers enjoyed a reduction in their property taxes for two years, and I’m sure they don’t remember that.”

Hart said a higher tax rate would be needed to cover the loss of the SPLOST subsidies.

“It’s not an increase,” he said. “It’s the end of the credit.”

The county only just began compiling next year’s proposed budget Monday, when department budgets were due.

Some commissioners indicated they’d fight such a large tax increase. Without a tax hike, Richardson said, the county would have to stop funding some things it’s paid for in the past, though he declined to discuss specifics.

County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said the county needs to do all the cutting it can do. He also declined to discuss specifics but said it would be possible to make up for the shortfall through cuts.

“It’s not a question of ‘can we?’ It’s a question of ‘will we?’ ” Edwards said.

Allen said the county needs to cut subsidies for most of the area’s nonprofits in next year’s budget. Among the cuts he suggested are those for the Tubman African American Museum and the Museum of Arts and Sciences, which each received $314,041 in this year’s budget.

Allen said the county could also save money by folding Lake Tobesofkee law enforcement operations and the Civil Court Sheriff’s Office into the much larger Bibb County Sheriff’s Office, which runs patrols, investigations and the county jail.

Allen predicted commissioners’ efforts to cut enough money would fall short.

“You’re probably going to have to have a tax increase next year,” he said.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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