By Gerhard Schneibel
With both Fulton County and the Fulton County School Board announcing millage rate rollbacks in their fiscal 2009 budgets, the Sandy Springs City Council finds itself pressed both to demonstrate its fiscal responsibility to citizens and provide relief in a troubled economy.
Millage rates are used to calculate property taxes, and without a rollback, those taxes would increase by 8.51 percent. As a reference, owners of $600,000 homes would be charged an additional $80.51, and the city would net $2.7 million.
However insignificant the amount, some council members supported either a full or partial rollback as a matter of principal and a means of winning citizen support. Council discussed the issue during a third budget work session May 27 and decided to advertise a partial rollback of 50 percent, which will amount to a 4.24 percent property tax increase and $1.3 million additional revenue for the city. Three public hearings will take place in June before the fiscal 2009 budget is voted into effect, and the millage rate is finalized.
“I think the clear majority at least now would support a partial rollback, still open for discussion over the next several weeks,” City Manager John McDonough told the council.
District 2 City Councilwoman Dianne Fries did not support the rollback, saying she supports using revenue generated by a tax increase to offset the possibility of a stormwater utility fee used to repair neglected infrastructure, the extent of which has yet to be determined.
“I’ve got two reasons I don’t want to do a rollback. One is that stormwater utility. Why would we want to give [citizens] a pat on the head and a check for $80 when you’re going to turn around in 18 months and say ‘How about giving me that back and add a little to it.’ I just don’t like that. I’d rather see us keep this money and maybe be able to avoid doing the stormwater utility fee. Then, on the other side, we’ve sat in here a couple of times and discussed all the items we need to do. People want sidewalks; we’ve got roads that we want to fix… We’ve just got an unbelievable number of items that are not extra things for the city,” she said.
District 1 Councilman Doug MacGinnitie supported a full rollback, a position he took during previous budget workshops.
“I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anybody that I would support a full rollback of the taxes. I think before this increase, both our revenue and expenses are increasing at a double digit rate in an economy where people are happy to hold on to their jobs, and people are tightening their belts. I think us going at those kind of rates does not look financially responsible. I know we’re a young city; we have a lot to learn, but at some point we have to stand on our own two feet and not blame Fulton County for where we’re at. While [District 4 Councilwoman Ashley Jenkins’] point is well made – that it’s, you know, $40 a year – that is always the hard part about being fiscally disciplined. It’s my belief that the benefit is spread over such a great number of people that it never seems like a lot of money, but it’s also incrementally how you get in trouble.”
Jenkins said citizens in her district responded to an email newsletter she sent about the budget with an overwhelming message they wanted aggressive, long-term infrastructure maintenance programs in the city.
“Forty bucks, that’s not even a half a tank of gas for my car. That’s a couple lattes at Starbucks. When we could actually use that $2.7 million to make some headway into the stormwater problems that we know about, which is $5 million, I would say no rollback and put that 2.7 million directly into stormwater repair. I want to avoid this utility if at all possible,” she said. “We’re trying to make some significant infrastructure repairs here, and I think giving a homeowner back $40 when you could turn that $40 from each of the homeowners into major improvements for the infrastructure for this city [is a mistake].”
District 3 Councilman Rusty Paul stayed quiet during the conversation until asked his opinion by Mayor Eva Galambos.
“I will support the partial rollback for now with the caveat that I’m going to reserve to change my mind once we vote on the budget,” he said. “Eighteen months from now, when this community is struggling with the infrastructure costs, then I think we’ve got a way that we can avoid having to hit them with additional taxes.”
District 5 Councilman Tibby DeJulio supported a full rollback, and District 6 Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny supported a partial rollback.