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Atlanta school board sets tax rate at 20.74-mills

Despite concerns from some homeowners, the Atlanta school board set the school property tax rate at 20.74 mills, reflecting an 8.23 percent increase over the rollback millage rate. 

 The 8-0 vote took place at a Monday meeting, during which four residents echoed comments from previous public hearings about climbing tax bills and rocketing Fulton County property assessments. Fulton County property values increased significantly this year after being frozen at 2016 levels last year. 

 “I can’t afford to pay two and a half times what I was paying last year in taxes,” said resident Dana Jackson, adding that without a millage-rate rollback she will have to move to the suburbs. 

 “Over the years, our school tax has gone from being just another bill that needed to be paid to a significant budget item,” said retiree Owen Omundsen, who asked the school board to adopt a “revenue-neutral” tax rate and said “a reduction would be even better. “School taxes are taking an ever-increasing bite out of what we have.” 

 The approved school property tax increase will cost the owner of a $300,000 home an additional $142. 

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 Although the new Atlanta Public Schools’ tax rate is one-mill lower than the previous rate of 21.74 mills, it’s considered a tax increase. That is because it doesn’t lower the rate all the way to the level that would offset tax increases because of higher property valuations. The school board would have had to drop the tax rate to 19.163-mills to be tax neutral to the school district. 

 Dropping the tax-rate lower would mean the district couldn’t put as much money as they want into reserves, said Lisa Bracken, chief financial officer. She estimated the district will be able to put $11.7 million into its fund balance this year. 

 “We just try to balance that with the pressures that we know our homeowners are feeling,” Bracken told board members. 

 No board members commented on the millage rate before voting. 

 In November, voters will consider a proposal that offers tax relief on the APS portion of their tax bills. If approved, the measure would increase the base homestead exemption from $30,000 to $50,000 of assessed value, but all homeowners would start to pay taxes on the first $10,000 of value. APS estimates the increased exemption would cost the district about $25 million in tax revenue annually for three years before it expires. 

 In a separate vote Monday, the school board gave preliminary approval to borrow up to $175 million to pay expenses. Fulton County tax bills have not been sent or collected, which is expected to cause a cash-flow problem for the district. The school system relies on that tax revenue to cover the bulk of operating costs. 

 This would be the third straight year the school district has had to take out a short-term loan to cover its costs while it waits to collect taxes. This year, tax bills have been delayed because of the high number of people appealing their property values, requiring Fulton County to get court approval before sending out the bills. 

 Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said it’s unlikely the district will have to borrow the full $175 million. If it does borrow that amount, it would cost APS an estimated $700,000 in interest and fees. The loan must be repaid by the end of December. 

 Board member Leslie Grant was not present for the votes.

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