DeKalb reforms await action from state lawmakers

Several bills seeking to overhaul DeKalb County’s financial oversight, ethics board and tax structure still have a chance of being approved by the Georgia General Assembly this year.

But they’ll probably only pass if state lawmakers representing DeKalb agree to support legislation that would freeze residential property assessments at current levels. By preventing the assessed value of homes from going up except when they’re sold or renovated, residents’ property taxes would stay the same each year unless elected officials raise rates.

Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, is insisting that lawmakers approve the property assessment freeze before he’ll sign off on legislation aimed at restructuring the county’s governance. As the only member of the Senate’s Republican majority representing DeKalb, he can influence whether legislation moves forward.

State law has prohibited property assessments from rising in DeKalb since 2007, and Millar said residents would suffer substantial tax hikes if the assessment freeze expires as scheduled after next year.

Until the assessment freeze is extended for another five years, government reform measures will sit in committee, Millar said at last week’s meeting of the DeKalb delegation to the Georgia House of Representatives.

“I don’t like doing this, but I’m not going to sit there and let this happen to people,” Millar said. “I think it’s unconscionable that we’ve had something for almost a decade, and now you’re going to drop it on people.”

The property assessment measure, House Bill 596, and other local bills can still be considered until the end of this year’s legislative session April 2.

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said Millar is standing in the way of proposals that would restore government transparency and accountability so that he can pass an unrelated tax measure.

“He’s bullying everybody over legislation he actually supports,” Parent said last week. “Sen. Millar isn’t doing any of the residents of the county a favor by holding hostage bills he supports over the tax freeze.”

The government overhaul legislation arose from recommendations by the DeKalb Operations Task Force, a group of community leaders and elected officials — including Millar and Parent — that reviewed reforms. Similar measures were also pushed by a citizen group called Blueprint DeKalb.

The property assessment freeze reduces DeKalb’s annual tax collections by less than $7 million, while the additional sales tax would raise about $108 million annually — $80 million for the county and $28 million for city governments. Roughly $21 million from existing sales taxes would go toward reducing homeowners’ property tax bills.

The tax measures wouldn’t take effect unless voters approve them during a referendum in November.

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