Guest Column
Doug MacGinnitie, District 1
Sandy Springs City Council

It happened so quickly, you probably didn’t notice, but this month the Sandy Springs government found $14 million of extra tax money lying around and spent it in about 30 minutes. I’m still somewhat stunned and surprised by the events that transpired, but I feel like the public deserves to know how our government operates.

A little background first. The city’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30. At the end of the last fiscal year (June 2008), the City Council learned the city had a surplus of $9 million because revenue exceeded expectations and the city’s expenses had been lower than budgeted. The council proceeded to spend the $9 million on capital projects. I argued that we should give at least some of it back to you, the taxpayer, in the form of a property tax rollback. That idea was rejected by the council 5-1.

Fast-forward to May 12, 2009. The council was told that the audit from last fiscal year (fiscal 2008) was complete and that there was an additional surplus of $14 million. That’s right, 10 months after the fiscal year, we “found” $14 million more. That night, we spent the $14 million after about 30 minutes of discussion: $7 million to be put in reserves and $7 million on various projects.

There are four things about this series of events that ought to disturb every taxpayer:

• It should not have taken 10 months to discover an extra $14 million. No doubt someone at the city knew about the surplus, but the council was not informed.

• In fiscal 2008, we overtaxed our city by $23 million ($9 million spent last year plus the $14 million). On an overall budget of $75 million, we missed the mark by 30 percent.

• DThe city had a $23 million surplus for fiscal 2008, but we did not give you, the taxpayer, one dime back. To put it in perspective, our overall property tax revenue for 2008 was about $28 million, which means we could have operated our city with just one-quarter of what you paid in city property taxes. This represents hundreds of dollars to every homeowner and thousands to our businesses.

• The council learned of the $14 million surplus on the same day that it made the decision about how to spend it. Those decisions took just 30 minutes, without any public comment or discussion. We had the $14 million for 10 months. I’m not sure what the hurry was.

I believe there needs to be a balance between the desire to spend money on capital projects in our city and the reality of the incredibly difficult economic conditions in which we live. With some wise, hard decisions, we can both return money to you, the taxpayer, and spend the money for necessary capital projects. Our unwillingness to achieve that balance does not bode well for our city, and we run the risk of becoming the kind of municipality that is unfortunately all too familiar.