Fulton considers countywide tax hike

Fulton County taxpayers may face an increase in the property tax rate this year, a measure being contemplated by the county government amid declining revenue and diminishing reserves.

The county already plans to raise the rate on unincorporated south Fulton -- the special tax for city-type services -- but now the Board of Commissioners appears to be seriously contemplating a countywide hike, affecting every property owner from Milton to Palmetto. With property values still nosediving, some county commissioners say it's time to face the inevitable, that the general fund tax rate must go up.

It would be the first such increase in more than a decade. The general fund pays for such services as courts, the jail, arts programs, health services, libraries and senior centers.

"They're out of their minds," said Michael Fitzgerald, a member of the Milton County Legislative Advisory Committee and co-founder of the North Fulton and Friends Tea Party. "Many of the Fulton County commissioners haven't gotten the message yet. The message is that people are already taxed enough, especially in Fulton County."

Since 1996, the countywide rate has declined from 14.01 mills to 10.281 mills. Commissioner Tom Lowe, who represents north Atlanta and part of north Fulton, suggested a 0.60 mill increase, which translates to an extra $42 on a $250,000 home with a homestead exemption and no year-to-year change in assessed value.

Total general fund revenue is projected at $520.4 million next year -- a decrease of nearly $14 million from 2011's intake. Spending, meanwhile, will increase from $558.4 million last year to a projected $602.6 million in 2012.

"I don't think the people of this county expect us to decrease their taxes," Lowe said. "I think they know the problems we face."

Other counties have already taken the step. Gwinnett County raised its property tax rate two year ago by 21 percent. Cobb County last year raised its rate nearly 16 percent, and last summer DeKalb County raised its rate 26 percent.

Under the current draft of the 2012 budget, however, Fulton would be increasing taxes while giving temporary employee raises -- effectively bonuses spread out over 12 months. The tentative budget approved last month would give workers in nonsupervisory positions earning $59,452 or less an extra $1,200 next year after taxes.

The raises would cost $3.9 million, which is part of proposed 2012 spending beyond 2011's total expenses.

Finance Director Patrick O'Connor said the plan to balance next year's budget with $82.1 million from reserves would drain most of the rainy day fund. Commissioners questioned where the county will get the extra $8 million per year needed to operate eight new libraries opening in 2013.

Said Commissioner Robb Pitts: "We can't continue going down the path we're going down."

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