Large tax cut considered in new budget proposal at the expense of maintenance

UPDATE (5/23/23): Hamby has added funding for maintenance back in his most recent budget version.

Mike Hamby
Commissioner Mike Hamby

Commissioner Mike Hamby is proposing a full mil cut to property taxes at the expense of infrastructure and vehicle maintenance in a new budget plan that he released at last Thursday’s commission work session. While some changes are expected, Hamby’s plan may become the basis for the budget that finally passes at the next commission voting session on June 6.

Let’s take a close look at it.

Table of Contents

Mayor Girtz’s budget
Taxes in Athens – how high are they?
Commissioner Hamby’s budget
Other commissioners’ priorities
Next steps

Wait, what happened to Mayor Girtz’s budget?

The budget crafted by Mayor Kelly Girtz and ACC Manager Blaine Williams was a relatively conservative proposal that kept property tax rates stable, attended to various organizational needs like facilities and fleet maintenance, kept the county’s “rainy day” fund balance full and reduced the local government’s reliance on federal American Rescue Plan money.  

This fiscally-responsible budget proposal was massively unpopular with the public, at least if commenters at last Tuesday’s agenda-setting meeting are any indication. Angry homeowners lined up to rail against Girtz’s budget, upset that this year’s large rise in home values would cause them to pay more in taxes if tax rates stayed the same.

One after another, homeowners demanded that commissioners lower property tax rates to the “rollback” level that would keep tax collections the same as last year.

One commenter accused the mayor of “trying to tax us out of our homes,” expressing a sentiment shared by many. Another speaker proclaimed that Girtz’s budget was “dead on arrival,” which given the public outrage may not be far from the truth.

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Taxes in Athens – how high are they?

With all the anti-tax anger, you’d be forgiven for thinking that tax rates in Athens are significantly higher than in surrounding communities. With one major exception, that’s not the case.

Every year, ACC financial staff compare tax rates in Athens to those in surrounding counties and similar communities. The bottom line is that they’re not as high here as we’ve been led to believe. In fact, they’re lower in Athens than in every community listed except for Oconee County.

Property taxes by market value for several different counties in Georgia
This graph shows property taxes by home market value for several different counties in 2022, including Athens. It does not include the increase in the homestead exemption passed by Athens voters last year.

Taxes in Athens fall even lower once we consider the low-income tax freeze and the massive increase to the homestead exemption passed last year, which is not included in the graph above. Even in Girtz’s budget, taxes on smaller homes would be comparable to those in Oconee County once we take these factors into consideration.

Many of those demanding a tax cut at the last meeting live in large, expensive houses which are indeed taxed more heavily in Athens than in Oconee. For these kinds of homes, the difference is significant and homeowners must pay $1,000 or more in Athens than they would in Oconee.

Hamby’s budget proposal

Commissioner Mike Hamby's FY 2024 budget proposal
Changes in Hamby’s budget proposal relative to Girtz’s budget

Hamby is proposing cutting property taxes from 13.1 mils* down to 12.1 while adding $3 million of additional spending. To pay for it, he’s taking an additional $1.3 million from the American Rescue Plan, $439,000 from the county’s “rainy day” fund balance, $500,000 from facilities maintenance, $861,000 from the vehicle replacement fund and $1 million from operating contingency.

Property taxes, for some reason, are measured on a thousand-point scale (i.e. “per mil”) instead of on a more typical hundred-point scale (i.e. “per cent”). 12.1 mils is the same as 1.21% for those keeping score at home.

Hamby’s budget is still in draft form and contains a few errors. For example, the $1 million in operating contingency that he suggested drawing from is accidentally listed twice (lines 32 and 41). It may be challenging for Hamby to replace this funding in the final version while maintaining the millage rate cut.

Nevertheless, these changes should satisfy Athens homeowners. Others, such as workers at the ACC Library, will also be happy to see the additional $220,000 for wage increases in Hamby’s proposal. The down-side is that Hamby’s budget delays some necessary expenses like vehicle replacements, which has been underfunded in recent years. It was even underfunded in Girtz’s budget due to an error. Williams had been requesting $300,000 more for fleet replacement to help close the gap, but instead he’ll have to make do with far less if this proposal passes.

Williams had also been asking for funding to replace failing culverts under county roads, another important maintenance expense which is not funded in Hamby’s proposal.

Other notable changes in Hamby’s budget include additional funding for the ACC Solicitor and the Public Defender’s Offices, an extra $300,000 for neighborhood traffic calming, $400,000 towards a housing fund and $1 million to freeze health insurance costs for ACC employees and even slightly lower them from 2023 levels. Hamby’s proposal also provides $100,000 for enhanced street outreach to the homeless, an interesting idea which is not fully fleshed out.

There will undoubtedly be changes to Hamby’s budget as the commission moves towards a vote, but it’s his plan, not Girtz’s, that will probably serve as the starting point for commission discussion going forward.

The commission shifted rightward after redistricting last year, bringing a new coalition of commissioners to the fore. Commissioners Allison Wright, Ovita Thornton, Dexter Fisher and John Culpepper will probably support some variation on Hamby’s proposal, and if so, they would need only one more vote to seal the deal.

Alternatively, the remaining five commissioners – Commissioners Patrick Davenport, Melissa Link, Tiffany Taylor, Jesse Houle and Carol Myers – may band together to create a different proposal. If this happens, they’d probably get the nod from Girtz, who retains a tie-breaking vote in case commissioners are split 5-5. This progressive budget plan is already in the works, and is likely to pass if Hamby can’t win the six votes he needs.

Other commissioners’ priorities

Thornton was absent at Thursday’s meeting, grieving the recent loss of her husband. Wright took over as acting Mayor Pro Tem and facilitated the meeting. Other commissioners listed their budget priorities as follows:

Commissioner Patrick Davenport

Davenport spoke up for ACC employees at Thursday’s meeting. He wants to provide an additional 1% raise to help them cope with the effects of high inflation. He also wants to raise tipping fees at the ACC landfill, beyond the $10 boost already in the budget, to better extend the landfill’s lifespan. Lastly, Davenport agreed with Hamby that the local government should completely shoulder this year’s increase in healthcare costs at a minimum and not pass those costs along to employees.

Davenport told APN that he is unwilling to “sacrifice services for the rich,” indicating that he is unlikely to support Hamby’s proposal as is.

Commissioner Melissa Link

Several people made requests during public comment on Tuesday for better funding for public events such as the Wild Rumpus. Link spoke up for this idea, and said she also wants to add a new Judicial AV Administrator position as requested by court officials.

Commissioner Tiffany Taylor

Taylor supports Hamby’s idea to increase funding for neighborhood traffic management. She also wants to see funding in this year’s budget for streetlights and the Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures, an idea to come out of the Athens Justice and Memory Project.

Dexter Fisher

Fisher has three priorities, all of which have been included in Hamby’s proposal. These are additional funding for the Athens Tutorial program and the Athens Community Council on Aging, and a freeze to ACC employee healthcare costs.

Commissioner Jesse Houle

Houle listed a large number of priorities at Thursday’s meeting, implying that they would not be supporting Hamby’s proposal. Houle wants to limit the property tax decrease to 0.1 mils while boosting wages and benefits for ACC employees. For example, in Houle’s plan the cost of healthcare is reduced, employees would get an extra 1% raise and the hourly wage floor would be increased to $16.07. Going further, Houle wants to fund the Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures, the Judicial AV Administrator Position and community events like the Wild Rumpus, while also raising the landfill tipping fee and providing $800,000 for live stream pipe replacement.

Houle is working on a alternate budget proposal to compete with Hamby’s plan.

Commissioner John Culpepper

Culpepper didn’t list anything that he was interested in beyond what is already in Hamby’s proposal. Rather, he spent his time questioning staff about SPLOST revenues, wondering if they could be reallocated towards infrastructure needs and other government essentials so that property taxes could be lowered. 

However, SPLOST revenues must be spent on projects approved by the voters. There probably isn’t as much flexibility here as Culpepper would like.

Commissioner Carol Myers

Myers mentioned some priorities that would be difficult to include in Hamby’s proposal while maintaining a large property tax cut. She wants to reduce ACC employee healthcare expenses, provide an extra 1% raise, increase the wage floor to $16.07, restore the vehicle maintenance fund, improve wages at the ACC Library and also to fund the Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures.

Next Steps

As acting Mayor Pro Tem, Wright called for a meeting on Tuesday, May 23 at 5:30 pm so commissioners could hash out their disagreements before the final vote on June 6.

At this point, the primary task for those supporting Hamby’s plan seems to be finding a way to include the Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures while maintaining a large tax cut. Doing so may help them win Taylor’s vote while keeping Culpepper’s vote, thereby reaching the six commissioner threshold.

But don’t count out the progressive bloc just yet! With Girtz as the tiebreaker, they may be able to pass their own budget proposal with only five commissioners in support. To do so, they’ll also need Taylor’s vote, a fact which gives her quite a bit of power over the final proposal.

The Athens-Clarke County Unified Government’s fiscal year 2024 budget will take effect on July 1, 2023.

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