By Gerhard Schneibel

The Sandy Springs City Council approved its 2009 budget June 18 on a 5-0 vote, but not before Dist. 1 Councilman Doug MacGinnitie introduced a successful amendment that sparked an extended debate about the millage rate.

The budget covers the fiscal year that begins July 1. Dist. 3 Councilman Rusty Paul missed the meeting.

MacGinnitie’s amendment, which Dist. 6 Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny and Dist. 5 Councilman Tibby DeJulio supported, stipulates that 50 percent of any surplus at the end of fiscal 2009 be used to reduce the millage rate in fiscal 2010.

Dist. 2 Councilwoman Diane Fries and Dist. 4 Councilwoman Ashley Jenkins voted against the amendment, which Assistant City Manager Steve Rapson said is not legally binding.

“You’re basically just in essence directing city staff on how to approach the 2010 budget. So I don’t think there’s any reason why it couldn’t be in the ordinance. I’ve never seen it done this way, but you certainly could wrap it into the ordinance with the intent of recommending to us what to do,” Rapson said.

MacGinnitie said the amendment would be a more efficient way of returning tax money to citizens than sending out checks at the end of fiscal 2009.

“Much like anything in our budget, we can change it. We’ve earmarked X dollars towards Morgan Falls. If we decide we want to change our mind next week, we can do that,” he said. “So, yeah, if the money shows up and there’s been a change in circumstances, certainly we can change that. But given the discussion, I think it is appropriate to signal our intent.”

DeJulio, after reaffirming the amendment is not binding on the council, said, “All right, I think I can live with that.”

McEnerny, who seconded MacGinnitie’s motion, spoke of surpluses in real and personal property taxes.

She said she and MacGinnitie “both believe that there’s going to be at year end — fiscal year 2009 — another $2 [million] to $3 million of surplus. All we’re saying is it happened in fiscal year 2006; it happened in fiscal year 2007. We think it’s going to happen in 2009, and when it does, we would just like to have the intention of the council to partially roll back to the taxpayers.”

Mayor Eva Galambos weighed in on the discussion and pointed out the Fulton County tax assessor’s office is expecting record levels of commercial reassessment appeals, calling the anticipated 13.5 percent increase in city property values a “big question mark as to how much money it’s going to pull in.”

“In a way, I understand the motivation of Councilman MacGinnitie. We didn’t do the rollback, and we got the money, and we’d like to make sure we do something next year. But I don’t understand the motivation of those of you who voted for no rollback and now wish to cover yourselves by saying, ‘Oh, but I’ll do it next year.’ I think it’s a game. I’m sorry. I’m being honest,” she said.

Jenkins said the surplus is a result of fiscal discipline necessary to ensure “we hit our goals on some [projects] and not be underfunded in some of our departments.”

Rapson “budgets low. He budgets low for a reason: In case the tax assessor doesn’t collect everything in an economic downturn, you want to do that. And so you’re surprised, you’re excited, when you get 9 extra million [dollars]. We could have budgeted all of that money. We could have budgeted all of it, but we would have budgeted it at 98 percent, not knowing if we’d actually get in 98 percent. … I don’t think that in this ordinance you should be making changes that would impact us in the future. I think if you want to do that, bring it up during the [fiscal 2010] budget,” she said.

Fries simply said, “I’m not interested in this.”

She added: “I can’t support that because we’ve discussed this many times, and we’ve all had plenty of input on this on how I know my district is asking for us to continue moving forward with the progress we’ve made.”

Paul said in a phone interview that he was absent because he had a business meeting. He said he is unsure about the legality of the amendment.