By Curt Yeomans
The Jonesboro City Council approved its 2011 budget on Monday, but an outcry from residents over a planned property-tax increase means the battle may just be starting.
The council approved the budget, which includes money to be collected through a yet-to-be determined propety-tax rate, by a 4-to-2 vote, with Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox casting a vote in favor of the budget. One councilmember, Joe Compton, abstained, although he has repeatedly said he is opposed to a budget that includes a property tax.
The tax issue is ultimately what divided councilmembers over the budget, as they argued if it is fair to make residents, as well as business owners, pay a property tax to balance the city's budget. It has been several years since the city had a residential property tax, the amount of which is determined by a millage rate.
The council did not hear public comment until after it voted on approving the budget, but the residents who did get to speak, all expressed opposition to a property tax.
"I think you're counting your chickens before they've hatched," Jonesboro resident, Nancy Cochran, told councilmembers. "If you don't get [a lower homestead exemption] voted in ... then, we're going to be sitting here [in the fall] again [saying] 'Oh, where are we going to get the money? Where are we going to get the money?'"
The future of a property tax, which must generate $166,182 under the 2011 budget, could now rest in the hands of Jonesboro residents, who may get a chance to vote this year on lowering the city's homestead exemption, which would make them share the burden of the tax with businesses in the city.
This is also an election year for some citywide offices, including the mayor's office, and several seats on the council.
In addition to approving the budget, the council also unanimously approved a resolution to ask the Clayton County Legislative Delegation to introduce a bill that would allow residents to vote on reducing Jonesboro's homestead exemption. If approved, residents would vote on whether to lower the exemption from $60,000, to $30,000. The current exemption is so high that most residents pay little or no city property taxes on their residences.
Several city leaders, including Maddox, repeatedly have said a property tax is needed to balance the city's budget without furloughing employees, cutting more positions, or cutting the salaries of city employees. Maddox said he is scheduled to meet with Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, Tuesday, to try and get the county leader's support for lowering the tax exemption.
Former Jonesboro City Councilman, Rick Yonce, said it will not be easy to get residents to vote in favor of a lower homestead exemption. "It probably will be an issue in the election," Yonce said. He later explained: "If a tax bill comes in, people are going to be mad."
Throughout the council meeting on Monday, residents sitting in the audience quietly grumbled their displeasure with city leaders. More than once, a resident could be heard saying the councilmembers were doing whatever they wanted to do.
Beverly Lester told councilmembers she saw the property tax as a sign that city leaders were not taking into account how tough economic times are affecting local residents. Lester said residents were already going to be hard-pressed for money because of increasing utility bills. "I feel like, by passing the budget, you have turned your backs on the citizens that supported you, and that you do not care about the suffering that we are incurring with our own lack of money coming in," Lester said.
"It seems like the only people in Jonesboro that are not suffering are the mayor, council and city hall," she added.
John Templeman criticized the council for approving a property tax in the budget without knowing what the tax digest looks like in the city. "The county digest will not come out for a few months," the Jonesboro resident said. "We cannot foresee what, or how much, this millage rate will be [for] said property tax. Therefore, you cannot add this line item to the budget. It is not a tangible substance to stand on."
Maddox said he does not yet know what millage rate will be needed to collect the $166,182 allotted in budget for property-tax revenue. The reason, he said, is because local tax digest figures do not come in from the Clayton County Tax Commissioner's Office until the spring.
"It would be just grabbing a number out of the air [right now]," Maddox said. "I could use a scientific method to make a guess, but that's all it would be -- just a guess."