The possibility of Macon-Bibb County having a new penny sales tax was first mentioned by Mayor Robert Reichert in the spring when he presented a budget with a property tax hike.
At the time, the new sales tax was referenced as a way for the county to spread the tax burden around while providing some relief to property owners. Now, the likelihood of Macon-Bibb residents deciding the fate of the other local option sales tax, or OLOST, with a referendum is closer to reality.
The County Commission unanimously voted this week to further explore the matter. And some county leaders say another step is informing people why the benefits of the tax outweigh any drawbacks.
The discussion of the tax comes at a time when property taxes increased by 3-mills this year, and there was controversy about changes in garbage billing. Some residents have voiced displeasure about officials bringing up a new tax when they say the level of county services have worsened yet more money is coming out of their pockets.
The additional penny tax would lead, however, to a millage rate rollback and property tax freeze if approved by Macon-Bibb voters.
The amount of rollback depends on the revenue generated by the sales tax. But in recent years the special purpose local option sales tax brought in roughly $28 million annually for Bibb. So with one mill equaling about $4 million in revenue, that same amount in sales tax could result in about a 7 mill decrease, Macon-Bibb officials said.
“What I’m looking for is for groups and organizations to be educated: the NAACP, charities, organizations, nonprofits, sororities, churches — get familiar with it so you can explain it so you just don’t see it as another tax,” Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Al Tillman said. “It’s going to change so much in this community if we can passed the OLOST.”
The current 7 cent sales tax in Macon-Bibb County is broken down into: 4 cents that goes to the state, a penny for a local sales tax, and 1 cent each for the SPLOST and educational special purpose local option sales tax.
Unlike the SPLOST, which restricts revenue to being spent on capital improvements, the local option sales tax can be used for general operating expenses.
Several hurdles must be cleared before the new tax can go into effect. Commissioners must ask state leaders to craft legislation allowing the county to have a referendum on the property tax freeze and sales tax.
The measure could then be added onto the November 2018 ballot. If approved, collections would start in 2019 and the millage rollback would occur in 2020.
Officials tout benefits of tax
Studies performed on SPLOST and ELOST show more than half of the sales tax revenue comes from people who live outside of Bibb County, Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Gary Bechtel said.
“You have a lot of people coming here on a daily basis for employment in Bibb,” he said. “So you have people eating lunch, people buying gas, buying goods and services, people shopping here that do not live in Bibb.”
Another benefit is how the sales tax money would come in compared to property tax collections. Property tax revenue is a windfall since most of it comes in around the same period of time each year. However the sales tax would roll in monthly, thus proving a more routine cash flow for the county, Bechtel said.
“I encourage people to study this, look at it, ask questions and give it serious consideration,” he said. “I think it’s an option that comes with the benefit of being a consolidated government that would offer another benefit to people who own property in Bibb with a homestead exemption.”
So how would the property tax freeze work?
If a homeowner’s property value increases, then their homestead exemption would go up the same amount. That, however, would not be a factor if improvements such as new deck or an addition is made to a home, Bechtel said.
“You’ve got the assessment freeze which I think is very attractive to homeowners,” Bechtel said. “Second, you have a rollback of the millage rate which is very attractive to homeowners and hopefully will be attractive to those who are looking at Macon to relocate or buy a home.”
The Bibb County school district also sets its own millage rate. Superintendent Curtis Jones said the district needs to learn more about the potential property tax freeze and is doing research on how it's worked in other places. He anticipates having conversations with the county next week.
Macon-Bibb officials say it’s important to dig deeper into how the tax works before making a final decision.
“There’s a lot of questions about how to implement it, when to implement it, what it means locally,” Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said. “We want to talk with Columbus-Muscogee because they’ve had it for awhile.”
Telegraph reporter Andrea Honaker contributed to this report.