Stone Mountain doesn’t raise property taxes after citizen outcry

This is a screenshot from Stone Mountain's town hall and special called meeting on June 29.

Credit: City of Stone Mountain

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This is a screenshot from Stone Mountain's town hall and special called meeting on June 29.

Credit: City of Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain’s property taxes will hold steady in 2021 after multiple split votes and dozens of residents complained about the threat of rising taxes.

During a town hall and City Council meeting June 29, more than 60 people watched city leaders quibble over the city’s tax rate and how it would affect the city’s budget. Stone Mountain, which has roughly 6,300 residents, had the highest property tax rate in DeKalb County last year, but it will drop this year.

Every Georgia city has to advertise a property tax increase if property values rise and city leaders don’t commit to lowering the tax rate. Stone Mountain advertised keeping the rate the same, and because the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a housing market boom, a steady rate would have led to the city bringing in tens of thousands of extra dollars in taxes. Residents weren’t afraid to voice their opposition during the town hall.

“I’m a little appalled and taken aback that we’re discussing increased property taxes and increased millage rates when we’re still recovering from a pandemic,” said Mary Todd, a retired health care worker. “And though I’ll be OK, I’m very concerned for my elderly neighbors, people who have lost their jobs, people who have lost their homes and people who don’t have any income.”

Property taxes are charged based on a “millage rate,” which is the amount per $1,000 of property value that is used to calculate taxes. In 2020, Stone Mountain had a millage rate of 20 mills. Since the tax rate is tied to assessed property values, residents can end up paying more taxes if their home’s appraised value increases.

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City Manager ChaQuias Miller-Thornton said Stone Mountain’s property tax rate has historically been high because the city has a small corporate sector, meaning it has to rely more on residents to fund the city’s budget. Cities with larger corporate sectors, such as Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Tucker, have significantly lower tax rates.

Resident Mike Schaaphok told city leaders that he and his neighbors are frustrated with the high tax rate and what they see as a lack of impactful city initiatives and projects.

“There has not been one person who says that they feel that the taxes that have increased over the past four years has made their life in Stone Mountain better. Not one,” he said.

Councilman Clint Monroe, who argued for lowering the rate by five mills to provide a large tax cut for residents, was blunt when trying to channel voters’ frustration.

“It’s 15 mills or fight,” Monroe said. “And if you can’t remember that, November is coming.”

Miller-Thornton asked the council to vote to lower the rate, but she said that steep of a tax cut isn’t feasible with the city’s current budget. A millage rate of 15 mills would create a $458,000 budget shortfall, because the city usually only collects 91% of the property taxes it’s owed, according to her calculations.

How many pennies to pinch?
These are various millage rates the city considered for 2021. The city anticipates to collect 91% of what it bills for property taxes, and most millage rates would require budget cuts. City leaders ultimately opted for 17.8 mills.
City of Stone Mountain

“This current budget, Mr. Monroe, that we’re operating under is also the budget that you helped to approve,” Miller-Thornton said. “... What you are proposing at 15 mills just does not (and) will not work for our current scenario.”

Monroe argued the city could reallocate $233,000 that was set aside for a historic train depot renovation project to offset some of the budget deficit, adding that “belt-tightening” and “process improvements” could cover the rest. But three members of the council and the mayor disagreed.

Led by Monroe, three councilmembers voted for a rate of 16 mills, but Mayor Patricia Wheeler overruled that proposal following a tie vote. The city ultimately passed a rate of 17.8 mills, which keeps property taxes at the same level as 2020, with Wheeler breaking another tie vote.

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