Atlanta officials defend higher tax

Many Atlantans will see their new tax bills before they vote for a new mayor in November; plus, all 15 City Council seats and the council presidency are up for grabs.

With the council voting 8-7 Monday to increase the property tax rate for general operations from 7.12 mills to 10.12 mills, Atlanta is one of the few big cities nationwide to raise property taxes this year. Locally, Gwinnett County commissioners decided against a tax hike this month after a near revolt by homeowners. Clayton County is mulling a tax increase.

"It will be interesting to see if the eight people who voted for the increase will be seen as the heroes or the villains," said Councilwoman Felicia Moore, who voted for the tax hike.

Mayor Shirley Franklin's proposed $541 million budget, adopted Monday, will end employee furloughs, beginning July 9.

One of the lingering questions is how the tax increase will impact Atlanta in the coming months. City officials say the average Atlanta property owner will pay an additional $240 in taxes. That's based on the average appraised value of an Atlanta home, about $240,000.

Franklin said the increase was necessary to close a $56 million gap in her proposed budget.

Many of the council members who voted for the increase represent districts with large pockets of low-income residents who said they wanted more cops and firefighters in their areas.

Council members representing the city's most affluent neighborhoods, which were among the most vocal critics of a tax hike, voted against it.

Many property owners were not pleased.

"There's no way to recover that in sales because you can't charge your customer more for it . . . and we're not getting more services for it," said Warren Bruno, a Virginia-Highland business owner and commercial broker.

However, Cousins Properties, one of the region's biggest developers, said it supported the increase to maintain public safety in Atlanta.

"Nobody ever wants to increase taxes, but in this case, we supported it because it was for the right reasons," said Tad Leithead, the company's senior vice president.

The lines in the political battle weren't always clear-cut. Many of the council members who voted against the increase said they were swayed by homeowners already under pressure in this recession.

"[My constituents] can't afford it," said Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, whose southwest Atlanta district includes the West End and Oakland City, two communities ravaged by the foreclosure crisis.

The mayor told reporters the increase shows the council thinks "the investment in city services is essential to the economy's recovery in Atlanta."

Atlanta officials defended the tax increase, noting the new budget, which begins July 1, includes major cuts to the corrections department and a plan to lower pension payments this fiscal year.

Monday's decision was an about-face from last June's vote by the council against a property tax increase pushed by Franklin. The mayor subsequently ordered public safety cuts and imposed 10 percent pay cuts through the furloughs on city workers to balance the budget.

The budget debate likely will be a factor in the mayoral race.

Councilwoman Mary Norwood, the only major mayoral candidate who had a vote on the budget, sided against the increase. She's often said she doesn't trust the city's numbers, but she did not return calls for comment Monday. Candidate Jesse Spikes accused Norwood in a statement of being a "politics-before-people" elected official.

City Council President Lisa Borders, who votes only if there is a tie, said she supports the increase as "the only choice" to maintain basic services. Another mayoral candidate, state Sen. Kasim Reed (D-Atlanta), wanted a 1 mill increase and the council to make cuts, but was satisfied that the budget will end the furloughs. Candidate Glenn Thomas, a former city employee, said in a statement the tax increase is "irresponsible."

Chief Financial Officer Jim Glass warned despite Monday's vote that more cuts may be necessary in the next 90 days, depending on the economy.

Also in Metro

> Clayton County's tax debate. B1

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