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Jonesboro City Council split on property tax

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

A division on the six-member Jonesboro City Council over the possible re-introduction of property taxes -- based on opinions voiced by city leaders on Tuesday -- appears headed for a split vote.

The vote on the city's proposed 2011 budget is scheduled for Jan. 3.

In the event of a tie, Mayor Luther Maddox is likely to decide the issue.

Maddox is proposing a $275,007 budget for the city for 2011, that would be balanced by including a property tax.

During a public hearing on the matter, three council members expressed support for the property tax, while the other three expressed opposition.

"Here's what it boils down to," said Councilman Clarence Mann, who is opposed to raising the property tax. "Some of us, here on the council, oppose taxes, and some of the people on the council think that the only way that you can get your way out of a problem is to raise taxes, and that's it -- simply. It's just a difference of opinion that we have."

Maddox said the council is scheduled to vote on the proposed budget at its work session on Jan. 3, at 6 p.m., at 170 South Main St., in Jonesboro. As part of the proposal, the city is seeking to collect $166,182 in property taxes, and another $4,000 in motor vehicle taxes, to balance the budget. City officials have said it has been several years since Jonesboro residents have had to pay a city property tax.

Sandra Meyers, Jonesboro's finance clerk, said the size of the city millage rate could end up being between 1.5, and 2 mills, but that will depend on information about the local tax digest the county provides to the city in August 2011. She said the property tax rate, which is also known as the millage rate, will be set at whatever number is needed to raise tax revenues for the proposed budget.

City council members have also said they plan to ask members of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation to push a bill through the Georgia General Assembly in 2011, allowing a citywide referendum on lowering the city's homestead exemption from $60,000, to $30,000. City leaders have said this would take the burden of paying property taxes off businesses, because more residents would have to pay the tax.

"It is my understanding that the most that some of you would have to pay on your taxes would be anywhere from $45, to $46, to $100 per year," Councilmember Pat Sebo told residents at a public hearing. "Now, I know for some people, that sounds like a lot of money, but for a lot of people, I don't think that's a lot to ask for the amenities that you have here in the city."

The city's proposed budget includes several cuts in expenses, such as reducing expenses for special events, from $5,500, to $3,000 in 2011. Funding for the city's summer concert series, which cost $12,000 in 2010, will be eliminated as part of the proposed budget.

The city's police department will take a hit. Its budget would be trimmed from $1.5 million (in 2010), to a proposed $1.43 million in 2011. As part of the budget cut, the department would lose a clerk, and two officer positions.

A proposal to have city employees take 12 furlough days during the year, was dropped. The proposed budget does not include furloughs.

During the public hearing, Sebo and councilmembers, Bobby Wiggins and Wallace Norrington, voiced support for the proposed budget, with the property tax.

"You don't get things free," Wiggins said. "You need to pay for what you get, and I don't think it should be taken out of our employees just because they provide the services."

Mann, along with councilmembers, Joe Compton and Roger Grider, said "no" to taxation. Compton and Grider went an extra step, and said they were outright in opposition to the proposed budget, because they did not believe residents should pay additional taxes, on top of federal, state and county taxes.

"These people you're talking about have needs, too," Compton said. "They have a need to have their own money, in their own pocket, and I'm not going to be the one to pick their pocket, and take that away from them. I'll vote against this budget."

A tied vote among council members could likely benefit proponents of raising the city's property tax, since city rules stipulate that Maddox, as the city's mayor, must cast the tie-breaking vote. Maddox said on Tuesday that he supports implementing a tax to balance the budget, rather than cutting salaries, or the length of the work year for city employees.

"We cannot balance the budget on the backs of our employees," he said.

Several residents, who spoke during the public hearing, expressed concerns about the proposed revenues and expenditures in the budget. Some said, after reviewing the proposed budget, they still had questions about how the city was spending money.

"I would be in support of it, if I knew how the money was going to be spent," said Beverly Lester, who regularly attends Jonesboro City Council meetings.