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Jonesboro to balance budget with property tax

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Property taxes are on their way back to the city of Jonesboro after an absence of several years, according to the city's proposed 2011 budget.

The Jonesboro City Council agreed to move forward with a proposed $2.58 million budget for the city, that includes revenue projections of $166,182 in property taxes. But, the exact figure for the city's millage rate remains to be seen, according to Mayor Luther Maddox.

The size of the millage rate, Maddox said, will depend on what the tax digest looks like in 2011. He added that it will also depend on the outcome of a referendum the city is seeking to place before voters this spring on whether its "homestead exemption," for homeowners, should be cut in half, from $60,000, to $30,000.

"We had to propose an ad valorem tax," Maddox said. "You don't know [how many mills it will be]. You don't know until you get the tax digest next year ... It'll be less than 2 mills, I can tell you that. You don't know what to charge until you get the homestead exemption out of the way."

The proposed budget won tentative approval from the city council by a 4-1 vote on Friday, with Councilman Joe Compton being the dissenting voice. Councilman Roger Grider did not attend the meeting.

The city council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the matter, on Dec. 28, at 5 p.m., at Jonesboro Police Department headquarters, which is located at 170 South Main Street. Maddox said city residents will be able to come by Jonesboro City Hall, at 124 North Ave., to review the proposed budget, starting on Monday.

City officials project that overall revenues, under the new budget, would be $2.76 million, meaning revenues will be higher than expenses by a thin margin of $178,000. Maddox said the property tax will help prevent the city from having to make drastic cuts, such as furloughing or cutting salaries for employees.

"We tried our best to keep it off the backs of our employees," Maddox said.

Despite the addition of a property tax, and a lower homestead exemption, there will still be cuts in the city's 2011 budget. The Jonesboro Police Department, for example, will see its budget trimmed from $1.5 million (in 2010), to a proposed $1.43 million in 2011.

The department will lose three positions, but Maddox and Jonesboro Police Chief Franklin Allen said those positions are being eliminated through attrition. Allen said a clerk has left because of family issues, an officer on medical leave is planning to take a medical retirement, and a third officer, who was recently hired, is leaving to join the police department at Agnes Scott College in Decatur.

"I'd say right now, we're at a break-even point," Allen said. "We're not overly staffed, but we're not understaffed."

There will also be funding cuts, and in some cases, eliminations of special events held annually in the city, according to a copy of the proposed budget.

The city's summer concert series, budgeted at $12,000 in 2010, will be eliminated. Expenses for other special events, such as Jonesboro Days, the city's Christmas Festival, and Taste of Clayton, are to be reduced to $3,000 in 2011, down from $5,500 in 2010.

City Councilwoman Pat Sebo said she is hoping to keep at least one summer concert, at no cost to the city. She said that would likely involve music groups from area schools performing for free. "I'm going to make sure we get one, or two, and I'm going to get them sponsored, so that there's no cost to the city," Sebo said. "We can showcase our own people."

One place in the city that does not appear to be about to feel the budget pinch is the Jonesboro Fire House Museum and Community Center, which is projected to retain virtually the same operating expenses it had in the 2010 budget: $3,000 for electricity, $2,000 for natural gas, $1,000 for supplies, and $900 for water and sewage, according to a copy of the proposed, 2011 budget.

Some residents, earlier in the meeting on Friday, questioned whether the museum was making enough money to break even financially.

Council Compton told other members of the city council that he had several concerns about the proposed budget, and, therefore, could not support it.

"I think the revenues are being under-budgeted, and the expenditures are being over-budgeted," he said.

If the budget ends up being approved as the city's official 2011 budget, thoughts will turn immediately toward getting the homestead exemption lowered, according to Maddox and Sebo. Sebo said the city will have to first petition the Clayton County Legislative Delegation for a lower homestead exemption, and the delegation will, then, have to get the approval of the Georgia General Assembly for a referendum to take place.

Maddox said a referendum could only be held in March, or November, under state law. An earlier vote would be better for the city, he said, because it would help officials plan for later in the year.