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Jonesboro taxes rolled back to zero

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Jonesboro City Council has voted 5-1, to roll back its millage rate to zero for the 2008-2009 fiscal year.

Councilman Bobby Wiggins was the only councilman to vote against the measure.

While those who oppose the roll back worry that the decision could eventually cut into the city's $3 million in reserve funds, advocates believe keeping the tax millage rate at zero will provide an added incentive for small businesses to move into the city.

Pat Sebo, a Jonesboro resident who ran for city council last year, expressed "mixed emotions" about the roll back. The millage rate for this year would have been 13.60, but this year, as in years past, the city chose not to charge any property taxes.

"The city is made up of a lot of elderly [people] who can't afford the increase and business owners who can't afford the increase," said Sebo. However, "my concern is how will the city continue to operate by pulling money from the reserves."

During Monday night's meeting, the council discussed the idea of reducing the 13.60 millage rate by 11.60 mills, leaving a 2 percent net millage rate. With planned downtown renovations, such as the city's Streetscape program, Sebo believes businesses will have incentives to move to Jonesboro even with a 2 percent property tax.

"We have a lot going on with Streetscape and a lot of businesses will come with that," said Sebo. "I really don't think 2 percent will scare away businesses."

Some citizens, however, believe a 2 percent property tax would burden local businesses, due to the fact that much of Jonesboro's property has tax-exempt status.

"The city has a $60,000 homestead exemption right now, and a quarter of our businesses are owned by churches," said Anne Wise, a Jonesboro resident. "About half of our properties are tax-exempt. That burden is going to fall completely on the businesses.

"We can't tax our businesses out of existence," Wise added. "There are other ways the city can generate money."

Jonesboro's Mayor Luther Maddox expressed some concern about the decision, but said he is "pleased" with the move to keep the tax rate at zero percent.

"With the economy going the way it is, I don't know how much longer we can do it," said Maddox. "It's tight, but we're making it. We're going to really have to cut corners to keep it at zero next year, but we'll do whatever it takes."

Councilman Wiggins doesn't believe the decision makes "good business sense."

"When we did the budget, a two mill tax was in there as income," said Wiggins. "The two mill tax that they voted [against] ... That is going to put our budget $180,000 in the hole to start with.

"We need to lower our homestead exemption, so everybody pays a little bit and its not stuck on one particular group," Wiggins continued. "If you keep going into your savings, you are going to be in trouble."

Councilman Roger Grider, however, believes keeping the tax at zero percent was the best decision. "Basically, it's what we ran on," said Grider, referring to promises made during the 2007 city election. "I've lived here for 31 years and only two or three of those years have we had a tax.

"If the state and municipal governments are hurting, just think of how some of these businesses are doing," said Grider. "It's not fair to dump it all on the businesses."

The city also voted Monday to hire Jonesboro attorney Steven Fincher as the city's new attorney. Fincher will replace Atlanta attorney David Winkle. He could not be reached for comment.

Maddox said a local attorney is more attuned to local issues, and less expensive.

"Attorneys get paid by the hour," said Maddox. "Within 10 minutes, I can be sitting in [Fincher's] office and he can be sitting in mine."

Fincher has held the title of Jonesboro's city attorney previously. He served under former Mayors Wilber Whaley, B.L. Yonce (the late father of councilman Rick Yonce), Donna Meadows, and Joy Day, over a 20-year span.

"I'm looking forward to returning to being the city attorney of my hometown and working with the mayor and council," said Fincher. "We'll make sure they look out for the mayor and council and see that they know the law."