Clayton property owners face higher taxes

Clayton County gave up its bragging rights to having some of the lowest taxes in metro Atlanta on Tuesday.

The County Commission quickly passed a 3-mill increase in its property tax rate, but commissioners emphasized that their rate was not excessive for the metro region.

"We ran a very skinny government for years," said Wole Ralph, vice chairman of the commission. "There has to be some property tax increase to ensure that citizens have the services they have come to depend on."

Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said that increase meant that the county would not have to cut any positions to balance its $176.8 million budget because it brings in an additional $17.9 million.

The extra 3 mills would mean an increase of about $194 in taxes for the owner of a $150,000 home.

Alex Cohilas, chief of staff for the commission, said that the total millage — for schools, the county and the state — should come in at 31.686, just under Gwinnett County's of 31.87. That's because the county uses a sales tax to roll back some of its property taxes. If the estimated rollback is excluded, Clayton County's tax rate would be 36.703.

Cohilas noted that the rate was still under other nearby counties such as Henry and Spalding.

Bell said he didn't expect a tax revolt — saying the citizens who responded to his unscientific survey on the issue almost all supported paying more taxes to ensure no cuts in public safety or other county services.

Commissioners have feared furloughing employees — particularly those in public safety — as the city of Atlanta did as it faced budget problems. The Atlanta City Council voted 8-7 Monday to raise the city's property tax rate by 3 mills so it could close a $56 million gap in Mayor Shirley Franklin's proposed 2010 budget and end employee furloughs.

Bell said cuts in property taxes that Clayton County had received from Delta Air Lines and sales taxes from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport along with a decrease in property values in general had forced the county to increase its tax rate.

"We were considered to have some of the lowest taxes in the region — probably in the state," Bell said. "Most of those who didn't support the tax increase didn't realize that we only had two choices: cut services or raise taxes."