By Joel Hall
Homeowners in the Southern Crescent, and all over Georgia, may have been spared an unexpected property tax bill after Gov. Sonny Perdue signed House Bill 143 into law Tuesday, and funded the Homeowners Tax Relief Grant for 2009.
While the decision will cost the state $428 million, leaders in Clayton and Henry counties say the measure will ease their stressed budgets and keep homeowners from absorbing the cost.
Chris Schrimpf, a spokesperson for Perdue, said the governor believes the grant is "bad policy." He signed it though, Schrimpf said, due to the fact that counties like Clayton and Henry warned homeowners that if the grant wasn't approved, they would be sent an additional property tax bill to cover the cost.
"A lot of county governments were saying that they were going to have to send out an additional tax bill between $200 and $300 per household," said Schrimpf. "The governor doesn't believe that has to be done. Given the current economic situation the state is in, he funded it to make sure those tax bills wouldn't go out, even though he believes it's bad policy."
While unable to provide a specific dollar amount, Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said Clayton's budget would have taken "a sizable hit" if Perdue had not approved the tax relief grant. He said the county is still obligated to provide services to citizens if the state cuts funding.
"By him [Perdue] signing it, it goes a long way toward helping us get through our budget, but it, by no means, gets us out of the woods," Bell said. "With this whole notion of cutting taxes, people need to understand that they have to pay for what they want. We must pay our employees fair wages ... if people want more services, it is our obligation to give it them.
"If the [state] government cuts health, we must pick that up," he said. "If they cut courts, we have to pick that up. We're wrestling with the economy just like they are."
Henry County Tax Commissioner David Curry said until now, counties had not received their reimbursement for 2008 property tax collections. He said the tax relief grant accounted for $10 million worth of Henry property tax credits, which would have had to be subsidized either by the state or paid for by homeowners.
"They were either going to have to eat it or re-bill [homeowners]," said Curry. "Now, the counties will receive that money they have been budgeting for."
According to Curry, just sending out the additional property tax bills would have cost Henry County $23,805, or 49 cents per household.
Schrimpf said the state has taken "drastic measures" to cut state spending and believes counties could have adjusted their budgets without making homeowners bear additional costs.
"There are some county governments sitting on a year's worth of reserves equal to their appropriations," said Schrimpf. "State spending has stayed in line with population grown, while counties have not."
Beth Brown, communications director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said the governor's approval of the tax relief grant fulfills promises that lawmakers made to homeowners.
"That $428 million was approved during the 2008 legislative session for the 2009 fiscal year," Brown said. "Based on the legal opinion of our folks, there is no way for the government to legally forgive people for property taxes they owe. We would have had no other choice but to send out delinquent property tax notices.
"They [counties] are laying people off, just to make ends meet, so they are not sitting on a lot of extra funds," she said.
Schrimpf said the governor will not likely support the grant in the future because he believes it is "ineffective."
"It doesn't do what it's intended to do, which is provide tax relief at the local level," Schrimpf said. "He's talked about how in the last eight years that the Homeowners Tax Relief Grant has been in, county taxes have gone up 40 percent."
Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro), chairman of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation, said the governor's actions will give homeowners adequate time to adjust if the grant is not funded in the future.
"It is obvious he [Perdue] wants to eliminate this," Glanton said. "At least next year, it won't come as a surprise. We want the governor to continue this program, but if he doesn't, we have time to prepare and adjust accordingly."