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Clayton residents protest proposed tax increase

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Several Clayton County residents criticized the county's Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, arguing that a proposed 5-mill millage rate, or property tax, increase is too high for taxpayers to handle.

On June 29, the commission approved the county's $167.4 million fiscal year 2012 budget, with a 5-mill millage rate, by a narrow, 3-2 vote. Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, and Commissioner Michael Edmondson voted against the proposed budget.

The proposed millage-rate increase is designed to balance the budget and ward off an anticipated deficit (that, at one time, was expected to reach $23 million), according to a county news release. It replaced a plan that included employee furloughs.

An information packet, handed out by the county at a public hearing on Tuesday, explains that the millage-rate increase equals a 34.18 percent increase in property taxes. The county's gross millage rate will become 20.953 mills, if it is approved by commissioners later this month.

"I rise in the strongest opposition to the proposed increase in the millage rate," Jonesboro resident, Norman Wood, told commissioners, on Tuesday. "With our economy the way it is, it appears to me, to be an unconscionable act to raise property taxes on the public at this time.

"I have a proposed solution for you. Go back and re-prioritize [spending]. Some of the things that you are spending money on, in this county right now, I think are a great waste."

The county commission will conduct two more public hearings on the proposed millage rate -- on July 26, at 9 a.m., and 6 p.m., at the county commissioner's office, located at 112 Smith Street, in Jonesboro.

On Tuesday, county Finance Director Angela Jackson said 4.5 mills will be a general net increase that all property owners have to pay (for a total net millage rate of 15.813 mills), while the other half mill will be a fire district increase that only residents in unincorporated parts of the county will pay.

She said 8,583 property-value appeals, this year, have caused county revenues to be decreased by $5 million, which was one reason for the proposed increase in property taxes.

Jackson added that the 5-mill increase replaces an earlier proposal to increase the millage rate by only three mills, while also furloughing county employees for 14 days. "The board ... decided to go ahead and increase it an additional two mills on top of that, to prevent the structural deficit that would go on for years to come, unless we had some significant improvement in the economy," Jackson said.

The finance director added, if the increase is approved, the owner of a $100,000 home would see his, or her, property taxes increase by $150.

Jonesboro resident, Sonja Sleeper, questioned commissioners about current property values in the county. "I'd like to know how many homes are left in Clayton County that are worth $100,000?" she said. "Mine would be [worth] about $27,000 now. That's all I could sell it for, and it's in relatively good shape."

Another Jonesboro resident, Evelyn Starks, said the commission should cut some newly created positions, including the recently approved county manager position, before raising property taxes. She said higher property taxes will cause people to "flee" the county.

"That [cutting positions] is something I would try to look at first, before I put the burden on common middle class and working class people," Starks said.

Each time a resident got up and spoke out against the proposed increase, the approximately 60 people sitting in the audience applauded.

Commissioners said little in response to the tax-increase protests, other than Chairman Bell telling one resident, "I hear your complaint." When Bell asked his fellow commissioners if they wanted to make any statements at the end of the public hearing, they all stayed quiet.

After the hearing, Bell said he is "sensitive" to the concerns and needs of county residents who are upset about the property taxes. He added that he believes taxpayers would be willing to pay more in property taxes, but only if a deficit remains after "we've exhausted all of our options" to cut expenditures.

The chairman added that he and Commissioner Edmondson are working to create a compromise that would bridge the gulf between the spending cuts that several residents asked for on Tuesday, and the desires of commissioners. He said he hopes to have that plan ready by July 26.

"I tend to believe that, if we come up with something that works, our colleagues will have some interest," Bell said. "I have to believe they would go along with that."