By John Eaves
A spate of bills under consideration in the 2013 Georgia Legislature that appear to appease voter frustration in north Fulton County would, in reality, devastate all of Fulton County and its residents.
I would like to address two House bills in particular.
HB 541 proposes to double the homestead exemption in Fulton County from $30,000 to $60,000 over three years.
HB 604 would suspend the board’s ability to increase the tax millage beyond the roll-back rate until Jan. 1, 2015, after which any increase in the millage would require the affirmative votes of five of the members of the Board of Commissioners.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t appreciate what amounts to a tax cut? But this legislation comes with a hefty price.
Passage of these bills would mean a loss in county revenue of almost $50 million and that would mean drastic cuts in county services, including those provided by Grady Memorial Hospital.
Here are the facts regarding HB 541:
• Fulton County already has the highest homestead exemption rate in Georgia.
• Approximately 80 percent of Fulton County’s revenue comes from property taxes.
• Doubling the homestead exemption would shift the burden of property taxes to commercial property owners and homeowners with more valuable homes.
If the county is forced to do a revenue-neutral millage rate adjustment, most businesses and many homeowners in north Fulton will pay more in taxes.
Here are the facts regarding HB 604:
• Fulton County has not increased its millage since 1991 despite the Great Recession and revenue policy changes from the General Assembly.
• Fulton County is the only large county in metro Atlanta that has not increased its millage rate since the beginning of the 2008 economic downturn. Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties have all increased their millage rates.
Moreover, Fulton County has managed within its budget by reducing spending by $61.1 million from 2007 to 2012. The Board of Commissioners reduced spending by $8.7 million from 2012 to 2013.
What would the loss of millions of dollars in county revenue mean to you?
First and foremost, it would mean a reduction in funding to Grady hospital, which provides trauma and health-care services to Georgians throughout the state. The county provides $50 million to Grady every year, and there’s no question funding would have to be cut.
These cuts are likely to hurt business by forcing delays in processing real estate records and civil litigation.
Tax assessments and appeals also may take longer to settle. It also would likely mean cuts in hours or closing of libraries.
The justice system would suffer, which could hurt our ability to get out from under the federal consent decree. The prosecution of criminal cases will slow, and long overdue juvenile justice reform may be delayed. This could mean we are forced to build a new jail, a very costly endeavor (think hundreds of millions of dollars).
There is more at stake here than money. Georgia is a “home rule” state. As I see it, that means the state constitution grants cities, municipalities and counties the ability to pass laws to govern themselves. In my opinion, this legislation violates that rule and I don’t think we really want to set that precedent.
I acknowledge we have problems to solve within Fulton County. We are at a crossroads. I am ready and willing to negotiate county parity and equal representation as long as we tackle these issues in the spirit of togetherness.
Divisive and spiteful legislation is not the way to solve our differences and will only hurt the very residents we are here to serve.
John Eaves is chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.