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Jonesboro leaders revisiting millage rate issue

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Members of the Jonesboro City Council, faced with making cuts to balance the city's 2011 budget, debated Monday over whether they should revisit the issue of increasing the city's zero-mills millage rate.

In October, the council voted 4-to-2 against a millage rate increase proposed by Mayor Luther Maddox. Since then, Maddox and other city officials have warned the council of a substantial budget shortfall. Councilmembers have been told the city must make deep cuts, including potential furloughs for all city employees, and possible layoffs in the police department, to balance the budget.

The city's 2011 budget must be balanced, and in place, by the end of December, city officials have said.

On Monday, Councilman Bobby Wiggins pleaded with his colleagues to raise the millage, or property tax, rate by "2.5 to 3 mills," arguing that it was the council's fault that the city was facing a budget shortfall of $172,000. That is down from the $300,000 shortfall city officials were projecting two weeks ago.

"This is our, the council's, fault," Wiggins said. "We have sat up here and voted to give the city services, [such as] police protection, street lights, and all for free. This would be good, if we had enough income to pay for all of these services. This is where taxes come in ...

"We need to do away with any, and all, furlough days, and that would make us $226,840 short, and we, the council, need to commit to a 2.5-to-3-mill tax tonight for 2011. A 3-mill tax, if everybody pays, would give us about $258,000 [in additional revenue]."

The city council made no decision on whether a re-vote on the millage rate will, indeed, take place, but Maddox did tell council members a called meeting will be forthcoming to continue discussions on the city's budget. After the meeting, the mayor said no date has been set for when the meeting will take place.

Some councilmembers said they believe raising the city's millage rate, if the council does re-vote on the issue, could pass because council members could likely end up split 3-3 on the issue, forcing Maddox to cast a tie-breaking vote. During the meeting, the mayor said he was in favor of raising the millage rate.

"We are no longer going to be able to zero the millage rate out with the economy like it is, and the revenue shortfalls that the city is experiencing," Maddox said. "We need to establish a city ad valorem tax, in order to balance this budget."

One area of potential cuts that has gotten a lot of attention is talk of laying off three employees at the Jonesboro Police Department, including two patrol officers, and demoting some higher-ranking officers in the department.

Maddox said no firm decisions have been made about what will be cut, and "everything is on the table." He added that the council is still hearing proposals, ranging from re-organization, to lay-offs, on how to reduce expenses.

Wiggins said the re-organization, if implemented, would be limited to the police department.

Other areas that have been suggested for possible cuts include every city employee having to take 12 furlough days, and the elimination of Christmas lights and summer outdoor concerts.

Wiggins' plea to re-vote on the millage rate did lead to a debate among members about whether increasing the tax, from the current rate of zero mills, where it has been for the last few years, would help the city.

Opponents argued that the increase would do nothing to help the city. "We're all in hard times, but we will never, ever be able to keep creating enough taxes to pay our way out of debt," said Councilman Clarence Mann. "We've got to do some cutbacks somewhere, sometime, because people are overburdened right now."

Mann and Councilman Joe Compton also said raising the millage rate might drive businesses out of the city. City officials have said the burden of paying property taxes would fall on businesses in the city, because of a $60,000 homestead exemption for homeowners, set by the Georgia General Assembly.

"I think with the tax, we will actually create exactly the opposite of what you're trying to do," Compton said. "I think you're going to have businesses leave Jonesboro, and with less businesses, you have to pay these taxes, you're going to end up with less money, instead of more."

Councilwoman Pat Sebo, a proponent of raising the millage rate, argued that a rate of zero mills has done nothing to attract new businesses to the city, however. "Having a zero-mills rate for the last three years has not brought an increase of businesses to the City of Jonesboro," she said.

"I don't think they're going to find another place that they can go that they will not have to pay taxes," Maddox added.

Sebo also suggested that the city seek to have legislators lower the homestead exemption, so homeowners would take some of the burden off business owners. Mann said he believed that would be a fair step to take.