Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
The Clayton County Board of Commissioners approved a controversial 34.18-percent increase in the county's property tax rate by a razor-thin, 3-2 margin on Tuesday, despite threats from residents that they would vote commissioners out of office, if the increase passed.
The commission's decision means the county's millage rate, which is a property tax rate, will increase by 5 mills for the current fiscal year. Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, and Commissioner Michael Edmondson voted against the increase.
During a tense public hearing before the vote, several of the approximately 150 Clayton County residents who attended the meeting lashed out at commissioners for considering the millage-rate hike.
"Why is [it] too much for the citizens of Clayton County to ask you to do the right thing by the people?" asked Geralyn Daniel, who identified herself only as a resident of Clayton County. "In fact, why should we even ask you at all, after all this county has been through? Clearly, your only interest is to use up, and spit up, the very people that elected you to serve, and ultimately, you will destroy our county.
"You need to get your fiscal house in order, and learn to live within your means, the same way responsible and upstanding citizens do on a daily basis. Please show us some respect, for once."
Although the county's millage rate will be going up, county Finance Director Angela Jackson told commissioners that the amount of money many people pay in property taxes should actually go down. She previously told the commission a 5-mill increase was needed to balance the county's $167.4 million fiscal year 2012 budget, while warding off a deficit that, at one time, was expected to reach $23 million.
She told commissioners on Tuesday that the millage-rate increase was needed because of drops in property values in the county. She said 8,583 property-value appeals, this year, have caused property revenues to decrease by $5 million.
Using 2009 as a benchmark with which to compare the current fiscal year, Jackson said a drop in the average property value, from $112,000 in 2009, to $80,000 in the current year, means residents will pay an average of $89 less in taxes this year than they did two years ago.
Last week, however, she told commissioners that the owner of a $100,000 home would see his, or her, property taxes increase by $150.
Tuesday's vote to increase the millage rate could prove to be a key issue in next year's Board of Commissioners elections, when two regular commission seats and the chairman's seat, are up for re-election. Several residents, who addressed the commission, made it a point to remind commissioners that they are voters in the county.
"I would say this to the taxpayers," said Virgil Traywick, a Clayton County resident with a Hampton address. "If this millage rate is passed, as proposed, then I would pray that they all remember that next year at the polls." Traywick's comments, like the comments of several residents who angrily addressed the commission, drew boisterous applause from the audience.
One speaker went so far as comparing the behavior of the commissioners to children. "Before me is a group of teenagers that do not know how to govern in hard times," said Morrow resident, John Marxen.
At one point, after several residents criticized commissioners, county Spokesperson Jamie Carlington asked attendees to "refrain from expressing any negative, or personal comments to our Board of Commissioners during the public hearing."
Still, more residents came up to the podium to address commissioners, while continuing to be critical of the 5-mill, millage-rate increase. "You are not entitled to increase my taxes by 34 percent," said Clayton County resident, Stella Garmond. "I expect you to look back at the budget, and cut the budget."
Some attendees also hastily wrote the down names of commissioners who voted for, and against, the increase. A crowd of a dozen residents rushed up to the commission's dais to question Bell and Edmondson about the increase.
Commissioners Wole Ralph and Gail Hambrick quickly left the room after the meeting ended, and Commissioner Sonna Singleton also left not too long afterwards.
But, at least one resident, who was not able to address the commission because of time constraints, was in support of the increase. "I agree with the decision to raise the millage rate, because it's necessary to run the county properly," said Wayne Madden.
Edmondson initially tried to reduce the increase, by making a motion to cut allocated salaries for vacant positions, outside of public safety positions and jobs that fell under the auspices of other elected officials. Jackson told commissioners that would save the county $2.4 million, but she added that would only account for 0.3 mills of the proposed 5-mill increase.
The motion was defeated in a 1-4 vote, with only Edmondson voting for it.
Bell was the only commission member who explained why he voted against Edmondson's motion. "My expectation was that it would be a greater amount than 0.3 mills," the chairman said.
County officials have previously said 0.5 mills of the 5-mill increase will be a fire-district increase that only residents in unincorporated parts of the county will pay.