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In setting tax rate, Fulton County is planning for the future

When Fulton County commissioners set their tax rate Wednesday, they did something governments all-too-often do not: They thought about the future.

In a year when Fulton County property values skyrocketed — nearly 40,000 property owners appealed their values — the government was under pressure to keep their rates as low as possible.

VIDEO: Previous coverage on this issue

Justin Wilfon attended the meeting in Fulton County.

But to do so, some argued, would put the county in a bind in 2019, when rates would have to be increased to cover the government’s commitments. So in a 4-3 vote, commissioners decided to ease their way down over the next several years, instead of dropping rates one year and raising them the next.

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“This will lead to millage rate reductions going forward until 2022,” said Robb Pitts, the Fulton County commission chair, who voted with the majority. “Kicking the can down the road, we don’t want to do that.”

The tax rate of 10.2 mills is a slight decrease from last year’s rate of 10.38. On a $200,000 house with a homestead exemption, property taxes would cost about $510, as compared to $519 under last year’s rate.

Lower tax rates would have brought in enough money this year for the county to pay to run the jail, conduct elections, keep the libraries open and provide other services. But promises for 2019 that include a payment to Grady Memorial Hospital, the implementation of a pay-for-performance plan and a pay and classification study in the court system would mean the county would have had to raise tax rates to pay for everything. Now, the rate should continue to decrease, and the extra money will come out of this year’s stockpiled reserves.

“An incremental decrease is great,” said Den Heinz, a Johns Creek resident. But he also called the decision a publicity stunt, and said the county was gaming the system by calling for decreases while in reality, commissioners were raising taxes by not lowering the rate as much as they could have.

Ginny Helms, who lives in Roswell, said she isn’t keen on the logic commissioners used, but does appreciate the attempts to budget into the future.

Pitts emphasized that the move would not be a windfall for the government, but the three Republican county commissioners who voted against the move said they were opposed to any decision that would bring in more money in 2018 than the county needed to operate. They noted that the county had under-run its budget in recent years, and said residents wouldn’t be happy with a planned spending increase in 2019.

“I think it makes sense to err on the side of the citizen,” said Fulton Vice Chairman Bob Ellis, a Republican, in recommending a lower rate. County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, a Republican, said the number of appeals showed that paying property taxes was a hardship for residents. “We can’t forget where this money comes from,” she said.

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