OPINION — Another year and another tax increase from city councils, the county board of commissioners, and the board of education. Can anyone remember how to vote for a “rollback” of the millage rate to offset increases in property valuation and a significant property tax increase?
For all the political campaign rhetoric on operating within the budget and listening to the citizen taxpayers, our elected leaders are opting for another significant tax increase.
When your local elected official tells you they are not raising taxes, but will maintain the current millage rate, it’s a tax increase. Our property values consistently increase and if the tax millage rate is not rolled back to reflect the increase in property value, Georgia law accurately calls it a tax increase.
More tax dollars received, but the same service level?
The 9.5-percent tax increase for the county board of commissioners is shifting pay levels for staff via movement in personnel levels. Additionally, more revenue will go into maintaining employee benefits such as health insurance coverage (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/06/12/fayette-county-eyes-127-million-fy2024-budget-with-9-5-tax-increase/). Expect service levels to remain the same.
For the Board of Education, a tax increase means a $2,000 salary increase for teachers, a 2% cost of living adjustment for classified staff, and step increases for all employees as well as additional funding for the employer portion of health insurance coverage. The cost for certified staff increased 67% and the cost for classified staff increases 26%.
The additional cost to parent taxpayers and their students is increased class size, vacant positions will remain empty, and operational costs such as travel will be reduced (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/08/02/larger-class-sizes-hiring-freeze-ahead-for-fayette-county-school-system/).
And there is Peachtree City, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Winston Churchill would say. It’s the same city where the mayor told the news media that new large employee bonuses, pay raises, and increased pension payments “won’t cost taxpayers a cent” (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/04/10/mayor-misleads-about-cost-of-city-pay-raises/).
Peachtree City is pushing another double-digit tax increase, 12 percent for 2024
The City Council of Peachtree City has failed to protect its sites for revenue-rich corporate development, increasing the burden on local homeowners. The city’s continued annexations and zoning for dense residential development will demand more taxes out of our wallets as the demand for expanding services grows.
Sadly, the city council announced that over $10 million of critical infrastructure projects were never made available for the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) approved by the voters just a few months ago (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/06/19/who-knew-10-million-in-unfunded-maintenance-needs-suddenly-appears/). Local taxpayers are now going to have to make up the difference.
Peachtree City taxpayers will see no actual increase in city government services but will endure another significant increase in property taxes.
All local governments also saw tens of millions of dollars of renewed SPLOST funds approved by a majority of taxpayers. There is no doubt that the taxpayers have done their part, how about the elected officials?
The future forecast
Almost 20 years ago, I met with the staff of Money magazine and amazed them with the quality of life that Peachtree City could produce at such an incredibly low cost. The bang for the buck in Peachtree City easily surpassed the other cities selected in the top 10 places to live in the nation. They certainly recognized what a special situation we have.
Governmental attitudes in our two largest cities have changed. Many do not like the change of direction.
So where will the push for much higher residential development density in the county’s two largest cities take us and what will it cost?
Imagine the future impact on the school system as new dense subdivisions in Peachtree City and multi-family complexes in Fayetteville are all built. Also consider the number of homes turning over from senior citizens to young families, adding more students.
The school system has no control over real estate development in the county. The city governments take little consideration of the sum of their actions on the school system.
Let’s not forget to consider that every county resident not living in Peachtree City or Fayetteville will also pay for the increases in students to the school system through their property and sales taxes as well.
The school costs will keep growing. If the schools decline, the county will decline.
In addition to the new students with a rapid increase in housing density, we will see an increased strain on municipal infrastructure as well.
Impact fee addiction?
The cities collect something called “impact fees” on new developments. An impact fee is a one-time payment per lot made by the developers to the city, allowed by state law, to be explicitly used for infrastructure in that immediate area.
Impact fees look great on the revenue side short term, but the drawback is the long-term cost of maintaining and staffing the fire station, park, and other amenities built with the fees. And the property taxes from those new developments cannot cover the long-term maintenance and operation of the new infrastructure, causing the cost to be spread over the entire tax base, thus raising taxes.
What will Peachtree City and Fayetteville be constructing with their impact fees, and how do they plan on funding that infrastructure in perpetuity?
Who will preserve quality and pay attention to the costs?
There is this unique allure among elected officials to build new things and put their names on them. Moreover, it’s effortless and downright addictive to spend other people’s money.
Greed, jealousy, need for admiration, and other types of personality traits can lead to government decisions that would never float in the private sector where accountability and profitability are required.
It’s time for taxpayers to begin asking candidates where they stand on taxes and local government spending.
How about forming a committee of knowledgeable citizens to take a deep dive into the government budgets, looking at eliminating nonessential processes and duplication, asking department directors to find waste, consider reorganizing systems, determine if there are non-essential or low-performing employees, and creating a laser focus on citizen expectations?
In the meantime, you will keep paying those tax increases. Make sure you have filed for all eligible tax exemptions and dispute your increased property valuation with the board of assessors if you feel it’s necessary.
[Brown is a former mayor of Peachtree City and served two terms on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners. You can read all his columns by clicking on his photo below.]