Fulton County’s Millage Increase Sets up Legal Clash with State
With additional reporting by Barbara Payne.
(APN) ATLANTA — During a Special Called Meeting on Monday, January 27, 2014, Fulton County’s Board of Commissioners (BOC) approved a budget that raises the property tax millage rate by a 1.57 mill increase, in a five to two vote.
The budget includes a raise in the property tax rate from $10.28 cents per one thousand dollars of assessed value to $11.85. The increase will generate about $55.5 million for the county.
The increase goes against a law, HB 604, passed by the Republican-led Legislature last year that purports to restrict Fulton County’s ability to raise property taxes until 2015.
As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, the BOC considered raising the millage rate last year, in 2013, despite HB 604, but later changed its mind.
The County believes it has the right to increase the millage rate anyway, pursuant to Home Rule provisions, as previously reported by APN. Last summer, the county passed legislation to essentially repeal HB 604.
While the Board will still have to formally adopt the millage increase in a separate vote this summer, a legal battle is expected.
If finalized, it will be the first time in at least one decade that such an increase has occurred, according to a statement from Chairman John Eaves (District 1 at large).
The increase will take an extra $15.70 from property owners’ wallets each year for homes worth 100,000 dollars. For a 250,000 dollar home, taxes will increase by almost 110 dollars a year.
Chairman Eaves and Commissioners Tom Lowe (District 4), Emma Darnell (District 5), Joan Garner (District 6), and Bill Edwards (District 7) voted in favor of the new budget.
Commissioners Pitts (District 2 at large) and Hausmann (District 3) voted against the proposal. They are known for their consistent votes against property tax increases. In previous years, they have said that putting the burden on the property owner is unfair and unreasonable.
The approved budget provides county employees with a three percent cost of living pay raise, the first increase in seven years, according to Eaves’s statement.
Fulton County Commissioners also approved a 5.75 million dollar investment in infrastructure to fund capital improvement projects.
“We hope this sends a message to our employees that their hard work on behalf of our citizens is greatly appreciated,” Chairman Eaves said in the statement.
“During this budget process economic sacrifices had to be balanced with the need to provide services to our residents. The funding is in place to solve many of our current needs,” Eaves said.
Eaves’s vote is noteworthy, given the fact that he is being opposed by Commissioner Pitts during the 2014 Primary Election for the Democratic nomination for Chairman. As previously reported by APN, last year the Republican-led Legislature also eliminated Pitts’s at-large seat, to create a new majority-White district in Fulton County.
Eaves will have to explain to voters, particularly those in north Fulton, why he was willing to raise property taxes.
However, Pitts–who voted no–will have to explain why he was willing to let Fulton County residents go without the county services and resources they need.
According to a breakdown of the budget provided by Commissioner Darnell to constituents in an email dated January 23, 2014, Health and Human Services Programs, including Aging, were back to being funded at January 2013 levels.
Darnell wrote in the email that adjustments could include an increase in the cost of meals at multipurpose Senior Centers. Breakfasts were to be increased from fifty cents to $2.50, and lunches from one dollar to four dollars.
However, according to a statement from the County, the senior meal prices will only be increased by fifty cents, to one dollar, for breakfasts; and by one dollar, to two dollars, for lunch. An annual membership fee of 25 dollars for county residents will be added, 250 for nonresidents.
In addition, 29 hour temporary positions were returned to 40 hours weekly.
“Grady Hospital will be funded at $45 million excluding $16 million for debt service subject to the adoption of accounting and audit procedures designed to upgrade accountability and transparency,” Darnell wrote.
This is almost five million dollars less than Fulton County provided for Grady in 2013; however, the County had been considering even greater cuts to Grady of fifty percent.
Had the fifty percent cut been enacted, Grady would have had to cut most, if not all, remaining mental health services.
2014 budgets approved at the meeting included the Fulton County General Fund, South Fulton Special Services District Fund, and other funds.
The total adopted General Fund budget is $625,426,997. The total adopted South Fulton Tax District budget is $50,687,386. The Board also maintained a general fund balance of 7.03 percent representing $43,967,518. The fund balance for the SSD is $500,000.
The SSD for unincorporated South Fulton will receive five police officers ($500,000), ten code enforcement vehicles ($300,000), a soccer field at Wilkerson Mill Park ($200,000), one street sweeper, and one new fire truck ($20,000).
Some of the budget’s most significant features come in the area of criminal justice where the county was able to eliminate proposed cuts to the justice system, jail diversion programs, and adult behavioral health services.
An additional 6.3 million dollars will go to county registration and elections.
The county budget also allows Fulton County to maintain a level of service at Atlanta-Fulton County Libraries better than or on par with its counterparts in neighboring jurisdictions. However, library hours will be cut and several full-time and part-time staff positions will be removed.
“Today the Fulton County Board of Commissioners adopted a very progressive budget for FY 2014 that will move the County in the right direction as it continues to work towards right-sizing governmental operations and being more fiscally responsible by identifying cost efficiencies,” County Manager Dwight Ferrell said.