Monday, June 4, 2007

Taxes - Unified Government Edition

Okay gang, this is going to be a long one, so bear with me.

First, the numbers: the “General Fund” operating budget proposed for FY08 increases by 7.26% over FY07 ($99,427,587 and $92,692,351, respectively); the operating budget for “All Funds” increases by 9.03% ($151,352,289 and $138,809,320, respectively); and the capital portion of the budget increases by 248.69% ($61,748,200 and $17,708,800, respectively). Altogether, the proposed FY08 budget represents a whopping 36.15% increase over that of the current fiscal year ($213,100,489 versus $156,518,120). Even excluding the massive capital budget increase, the Unified Government plans to spend more than a million dollars per month more in FY08 than in FY07. Yet we are told that this is a “lean” budget - and the groundwork for a millage rate increase next year has already been laid.

In the Executive Summary for the FY08 budget (page B1), we are told that:

“The proposed millage rate for 2007 is 12.80 mills, the same rate as the last two years. With this millage rate, Athens-Clarke County residents will continue to pay lower property taxes for local government services than most other surrounding counties and other similar communities in Georgia.”

Bunk. This claim is based only on the millage rate; it does not take assessments or other aspects of local taxes and fees into account.

For example, speaking of those “local government services,” the millage rate does not include the separate fees charged by the Unified Government for basic services such as solid waste collection, water service, and sanitary sewer service. Any comparison with other counties or municipalities that does not factor in such charges (ours and theirs) is incomplete.

By the way, those who live in the old city limits (the Urban Services district) can expect the rates they pay for each of these services to increase on 01 October. Additionally, the commission is implementing a never before charged zoning permit fee. For documentation, see items 1, 18, and 19 on the commission’s June agenda for details. For many of those who live in the formerly unincorporated areas of the county, any discussion of utility rates is academic; by and large, they still do not have access to them (despite the explicit provisions of the Unified Government’s Charter).

And about that millage rate: it is true that it has been reduced a couple of times in recent years, but two salient points must be remembered:

Owing to increased assessments, property taxes increased in years that the millage rate remained the same or even decreased. In and of itself, a millage rate reduction by no means results in a property tax reduction. This does not mean that the taxes on every single property increased, but rather for the digest as a whole, which is precisely what state law means when it talks about property taxes increases. Also, the two millage rates reductions touted by the Unified Government must be understood in their proper contexts.

The first was entirely due to the efforts of Clarke County Republicans, who met several times in 2004 to analyze the proposed budget and identify areas where we though the Unified Government could make cuts (or more specifically, not increase spending to take advantage of the higher revenue coming in under the existing millage rate). Those findings were presented to the Commission, which in fairness did adopt some of them, resulting in a millage rate reduction. Make no mistake, however, as before we made our presentation, no one "inside the rail" was talking about a millage rate reduction, only about how to spend the new "free" money (at least no one had breathed a word about a reduction publicly).

The second was a sham, pure and simple. The budget text plainly indicated that the revenue supposedly lost to the Unified Government would instead be collected in the form of the new stormwater utility fee rather than as property tax. The new charge was structured as a "fee" for the sole purpose of getting money out of those entities, such as churches, the school district, UGA, etc., that are exempt from property taxes. Of course, for those on the paying end, there is no functional difference between a tax and a fee.

And by the way, according to the Clarke County Tax Assessor’s web site, the value of the county’s property tax digest has been going up by 9-10% per year recently. Thus, the Unified Government rakes in substantially more in property tax revenue on an annual basis, simply by virtue of doing . . . absolutely nothing (except for increasing assessments, that is).

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1 comment:

Winfield J. Abbe said...

This is a good summary. Too bad one never finds such information in the daily newspaper isn't it?
Many areas of Athens Clarke County do not receive all services although everyone pays the same tax rates. This is completely illegal especially after about 15 years since unification. But the good for nothing attorney general of Georgia won't enforce the law and force Athens Clarke County to comply with the law. For example, there is no, zero bus service out U.S. 441 North. Many other areas also do not have bus service. This is inaddition to the fact that most buses unsafely block traffic lanes since most stops do not have turn outs, they pollute the air with diesel exhaust and waste precious fuel since most buses have passengers which can be counted on one hand. The last time I looked the Athens Transit website was still misrepresenting the amount of money from the general fund to subsidize the bus service since the commissioners won't raise fares to cover costs; to about $20 per ride. We property owners are forced to subsidize this boonedoggle to the tune of about $1.5 million a year and rising while the website stated only $ 1 million although I have asked them repeated to state the correct amount. But the lowly citizens are left to use their limited resources to seek to force the Athens Clarke County criminal government to voluntarily abide by the law since the Georgia Attorney General won't do the job nor will the U. S. Attorney. Most people don't want to spend the kind of money and obtain an out of town lawyer to do the job. But this is what really needs to be done. If half the population put up $10 each, this would likely do the job and shut this government down in Federal Court. Isn't it too bad it is so hard to organize people. For most people, life is simply too short.