East Point divided on utility rates, tax hike

The battle has brought concerns about a deficit in the general fund, originally projected at about $7.5 million, though council members now contend it will be less.

The eight-member council is evenly split into two camps. One side wants to reduce water-sewer rates, which nearly doubled to a base rate of almost $48 last year. That side includes two new members elected last fall after promising to roll back utility rates.

The other side is against increasing property taxes to compensate for the utility rate rollback. They contend utility rates were increased because the general fund was subsidizing utility costs. They say the increased rates and a now-discontinued franchise fee righted East Point’s long-term budget issues.

“I feel it’s better to have the water and sewer rates go up than to have your property taxes increase,” Councilwoman Jacqueline Slaughter-Gibbons said. “You can control your water; you can control your sewer; you can’t control your property taxes.”

Her side lost two members in the last election. Now Mayor Earnestine Pittman, who campaigned for their opponents, provides the critical tie-breaking vote on budget-related issues, and she is leading the charge to reform the current budget with only four months until the next fiscal year begins in July.

On the face of it, the stakes seem small. Pittman is proposing to lower the base rate for water and sewer by less than $9 a month and at this point is recommending an increase in property taxes from 13.75 mills to 15 mills. But many residents fear she and her council allies eventually will raise rates higher to solve the deficit issues.

Pittman has warned that the city is facing a financial crisis — as it often did in past years — which may require more cuts in city staff and services. She said she and her allies on the council are trying to solve the projected deficit while keeping a campaign promise to lower utility rates.

“Nothing is off the table,” she told voters at a contentious town meeting last week. “What do you think is a fair tax?”

She said the council will vote on the utility rate rollback in March, possibly at its meeting Monday, and she contended it would not increase rates again next fiscal year.

Councilman Lance Rhodes said the mayor has essentially unleashed class warfare in the south Fulton County city by pitting property owners against poorer residents, many of whom rent and acutely felt the pain of rapidly increasing utilities. The mayor contends her proposed rollback would save the average water and sewer user $305 a year.

Rhodes and his council faction reduced property taxes by 1 mill last year to compensate for the higher utility rates.

Resident Elizabeth Hunt said it was more fair for all residents to pay the full freight of their utilities than for the council to use property taxes to make up the difference.

“I just don’t agree with renters not paying as much, but if you’re a property owner you’re going to have to pay more,” she said. “That’s not right.”

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