By Joel Hall
Clayton County residents, court workers and public safety officials packed the county's Administration Building Tuesday, in a show of support for raising taxes rather than furloughing county employees.
In response to a 14 percent, across-the-board decrease in personnel funding in the county's proposed 2010 budget, commissioners floated the idea of raising the county's base millage rate by as much as 2 or 3 mills to avoid cutting services.
"The ones that were here were OK with raising taxes," Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said, following Tuesday's hearing on the budget. "We need [to raise taxes by] three [mills]. Two wouldn't be enough."
Confronted by citizens, many fearing service cutbacks similar to those experienced in the City of Atlanta, commissioners discussed the possibility of raising the county's 13.453 base millage rate by 2 mills. According to County Finance Director Angela Jackson, raising the millage by that much would cost taxpayers an additional $15.7 million in property taxes.
After the hearing, Bell suggested that the county would need to raise the rate by at least 3 mills to cover the cost of services and avoid employee furloughs. "It would be about a $21.5 million increase," in property taxes, he said. He said the increase in tax collections would likely amount to "about $100 to $150" more per household.
Many residents were left without seats as more than 200 people crowded into the commission boardroom. Fearing service cutbacks, many said they would gladly pay more in taxes. "Clayton County is a county that has enjoyed a very, very low base millage rate and property taxes," said Henry Anderson, a local resident. "A lot of areas in this county show that. It seems to me that the only option is to raise the base millage rate ... It is unacceptable to cut public safety."
"I would encourage you to approve [an increase of] 1 mill, 2 mills, 3 mills ... Do not furlough, do not lay off any county employees," said resident, David E. Clark, whose suggestion drew applause from the audience. "Clayton County has never grown forward. In previous years, the county has not been fiscally responsible in raising taxes to meet the rising cost of labor, goods and services. Low taxes are not necessarily something to be proud of," he added. "Public safety is under-funded, which endangers the county."
Clayton County Fire Chief and Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas said the proposed 14 percent personnel funding cut would be "a very damaging blow" to public safety, particularly in the areas of 911 response and police coverage. He said that in meeting those demands, Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services would have to furlough at least 10 firefighters and paramedics per shift, and that the geographical area of individual police beats would increase 43 percent.
"Furloughs would only make up 10 percent of the reduction," he said. "They [county departments] would have to lay off, or not hire, to make up the other 4 percent. If there is a choice to be made ... many here tonight have spoken in favor of a tax increase."
Citizens, however, were divided over whether Clayton County's C-TRAN bus service should be scrapped to save money. Commissioners acknowledged that while savings wouldn't be immediate, due to a lengthy hearing process required by federal law to discontinue C-TRAN, not operating the bus service would eventually spare county taxpayers about $8 million per year. Commissioners Wole Ralph, Sonna Singleton, Gail Hambrick and Michael Edmondson said Monday they would call for a referendum in September on the continued funding of C-TRAN.
Several bus riders spoke out against the idea of cutting the service. "Canceling service would only create extra problems," said Frank Razzano, a C-TRAN rider. "It would create more homeless people, it would create more people without work, because people depend on C-TRAN." He suggested that the county use its own administrators, rather than an outside contractor, to run the bus system at a cheaper cost to taxpayers.
"If you cut it ... it is going to be death for some people who use it three times a week to go to the hospital," said Joyce Rogers, a C-TRAN para-transit rider. "C-TRAN is a priority. If that was your family ... I hope that you would consider it in your budget."
Several public safety officials told commissioners that if taxes aren't hiked, they would rather see C-TRAN shut down before public safety workers are furloughed. "All I am going to say is public safety or public transit? ... Let your conscious be your guide," Shawn Southerland, a Clayton County Sheriff's Deputy, told commissioners.
Bell said he doesn't believe supporting public safety and supporting C-TRAN is an "either/or question."
"When you put on the badge, you don't take it off. Clearly, through my work ... I am a supporter of public safety," he said. "C-TRAN, in my view, provides a valuable service to the community, particularly our seniors, our para-transit, and many of the service workers in our county ... that I'll fight for."
Bell said that between now and June 30, when the fiscal 2010 budget is to be approved, he would host a series of town-hall meetings, and post a survey on the county's web site starting today, to solicit the public's input on how the county should balance the budget. He said he will also suggest that the county adopt a penny or half-penny tax to support the continued operation of C-TRAN.