The Jonesboro City Council approved a 1.5-mill property tax increase by a razor-thin, 4-3 majority Monday night, but the decision was made in a way that raises questions of whether it was properly reached.
The council voted twice, with members, Bobby Wiggins, Wallace Norrington and Pat Sebo, as well as Mayor Luther Maddox, voting each time in favor of the millage rate. Members, Clarence Mann, Roger Grider and Joe Compton voted against the tax each time.
Questions were raised by attendees as to the validity of the first vote, because Maddox, who can only cast a tie-breaking vote under city rules, voted in favor of the tax — before calling for councilmembers, who opposed the millage rate, to cast their votes. The council took the second vote after criticism from residents, but there was uncertainty about whether the council had adjourned before that second vote was taken.
Whether Jonesboro residents have a new city property tax may come down to the validity of the council’s first vote. The question will be whether Maddox invalidated the decision by casting his vote, before seeing if there was a tie among councilmembers
“The mayor, or the city attorney, would have to answer that,” said Sebo, after the meeting ended. “It could have been out of order, but was it illegal?”
Maddox and City Attorney Steve Fincher, who did not attend the meeting, could not be reached for comment late Monday.
If the millage rate was, indeed, passed, it would raise approximately $150,000 in property taxes for the city, according to Maddox. And, that is only if 100 percent of the people eligible to pay the tax do, indeed, pay their taxes, he added. He said the tax was needed because the city has been “treading water” since its property tax was done away with several years ago.
“For the last three years, we haven’t been able to buy any new equipment,” Maddox said. “We bought the [city] garbage truck, but that garbage truck is paying for itself out of the city’s enterprise fund. We haven’t bought any new police cars in the last couple of years. We need a new street sweeper. We’ve put that off for several years now, and just patching it. But, sooner or later, it’s just going to collapse in the street.”
Councilmember Norrington said the 1.5 mill property tax rate was established, instead of the 2.5-mill rate which had previously been proposed, because the city could not get the Georgia General Assembly to green light a referendum on lowering the town’s $60,000 homestead exemption.
With the exemption in place, it falls on business owners to pay the majority of the property tax, and councilmembers wanted to reduce that burden by lowering the proposed millage rate, Norrington said. “That relieves the business people of the burden of paying the whole expense from that,” he added.
But, before the city can start counting the property tax dollars, it will likely have to address the questions surrounding the way the millage rate was approved.
Those questions are the latest controversies for the city, over an issue that has been controversial from the start. The idea of raising taxes, in general, has brought out critics who have been outspoken in their belief that a property tax would hurt businesses in the city, and possibly drive them out of town.
The city then had to re-do the process of holding public hearings, and a vote, last month after questions were raised about whether the public hearings were properly advertised to the public.
Councilmembers only added to the confusion over Monday night’s proceedings, when they could not agree about whether their meeting was still in session when the second vote was taken, which was meant to rectify the issues with the first vote. Each councilmember participated in the second vote, but some of them raised a question, immediately afterward, as to whether they had reconvened their meeting.
“This was an illegal vote, [because] we’d already adjourned,” said Councilmember Grider. “We did not adjourn,” said Councilmember Wiggins, in response.
A review of an audio recording of the meeting revealed that a motion was made, and seconded, to adjourn the meeting after the first vote was taken. Maddox could be heard calling for a council vote to adjourn the meeting, and he could then be heard banging his gavel and declaring the meeting adjourned.
The mayor could not be heard, however, reconvening the meeting before the second vote was taken. Sebo said if there is any question about the validity of the council’s decision, the city’s governing body can easily rectify the situation by voting again at the council’s Oct. 10 business meeting.