This map shows all of the tax exempt property within the city of Albany boundaries, including property owned by local, state and federal government agencies, local churches, hospitals and other tax-exempt organizations.
ALBANY, Ga. — Albany City Manager James Taylor has unveiled the city’s $110.1 million Fiscal Year 2013 spending package that, while cut by $1.3 million, includes hiring freezes, cuts to city services and a proposed property tax increase.
City officials are proposing a 1.33-mill increase, which would generate $2 million. If approved, the increase would add $100 to the annual tax bill on a $200,000 home in the city of Albany and would bring the city’s total millage rate to 9.99. The increase comes after five straight years of property tax rate decreases, which lowered taxes by a total of 2.2 mills.
The proposal was one of many recommendations offered by Taylor, who gave commissioners a blunt assessment of the city’s financial situation.
“We must come to grips with our spending and we must ensure all pay for the services they receive; we cannot continue to be the safe haven for agencies or individuals,” Taylor said. “The city of Albany cannot afford to continue to be the financial sanctuary for organizations that are not charter responsibilities.”
The tax increase proposal took some on the commission by surprise.
“I don’t think now’s a good time to raise taxes, even though it’s a small amount of money. We don’t want to scare off industry or those who may be looking to move here, or run anyone off,” Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta. “I’m prepared to go to any length to try and cut spending so we don’t have to worry about a tax increase.”
Ward II Commissioner Ivey Hines and Mayor Dorothy Hubbard also expressed a desire to delve further into the budget to see if there are additional cuts that can be made in hopes of staving off a tax increase.
The proposed spending plan includes no funding for Albany’s Flint RiverQuarium or the Albany Civil Rights Institute and includes an immediate hiring freeze with a goal of eventually getting staffing down to 2006 levels, which would ultimately mean a 50- to 60-person reduction in budgeted positions over the next five to 10 years, Taylor said.
Taylor has suggested that local non-profits, including Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and area churches, pay an annual fee in lieu of taxes. This suggestion was made because of the large number of tax-exempt properties within the city.
“The question is how does the city continue to provide its current level of services without the participation of so many?” Taylor asked. “Remember that, as these entities continue to grow, they’re removing more and more from the tax digest.”
According to Taylor, more than 24 percent of the city’s total tax digest is property owned by tax-exempt entities.
According to Taylor, Phoebe CEO Joel Wernick has told him that Phoebe pays taxes on property it owns that isn’t directly used for medical purposes. How much Phoebe pays in taxes annually wasn’t a number that was immediately available from Phoebe officials on Monday.
While Phoebe is the city’s largest property-holding not-for-profit organization, the city itself is another large one, with an estimated $40 million worth of taxable property exempt simply because it’s owned by the city. That number includes 300 FEMA properties that were involved in the flood of 1994 and 124 recreational parcels.
“We’re are grateful that hospitals, schools, churches, government, state, and county agencies choose to reside in Albany. Albany is the service center of Southwest Georgia and we’re proud to serve but we need all of those who benefit from these services to come to our aid voluntarily,” Taylor said.
Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff said that he believes the commission, which has no direct authority over the Dougherty County Board of Tax Assessors, should issue a resolution asking the board to more thoroughly scrutinize non-profits seeking tax-exempt status.
“I think we should suggest that they take a good, hard look at non-profits before they hand them a tax exemption,” Langstaff said.
Dougherty County Tax Director Denver Hooten told commissioners that the board is currently in the middle of an audit of existing non-profits and has already revoked the status of many that were either dissolved or improper.
The overall budget picture is a conservative one, Taylor says.
All of the city’s revenue funds have shrunk with the exception of the city’s solid waste enterprise fund.
Taylor said he intends to use that fund’s healthy reserves to balance the budget by pulling $2 million from that account and another $1 million from the city’s general fund reserves to balance the budget.
Cuts to spending would, in addition to eliminating subsidies to the aquarium and Civil Rights Institute, cut subsidies to the National Youth Sports Program and the Salvation Army; eliminate nine city positions; hold 32 percent of the staffing shortages at the Albany Police Department unfilled until FY 2014; eliminate cost-of-living or merit raises for city employees, and cancel the city’s fireworks shows on July 4, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Thinking long-term, Taylor told commissioners that he wants to reduce city staffing levels — currently at 930 employees — to 2006 levels. He also said that the city should research an option for early retirement to get the employee levels down, as well as implement a hiring freeze on all positions.
In what Taylor called a “blinding flash of the obvious,” commissioners could save money by reducing duplications in service that currently exist within the city government.
“It seems unreasonable to me to ask the citizens to pay more when we have likely efficiencies that can or should be made,” Taylor said. “In the military, we’d call that a blinding flash of the obvious.”
Without calling them out specifically, Taylor pointed to duplication in finance, information technology, procurement, human resources and fleet maintenance departments that exist between the city and the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission as places where the city could potentially realize savings.
How much savings isn’t known because, according to city staff, WG&L wouldn’t turn over its books.
“That’s something I’m definitely going to look into,” Hubbard, who as mayor also serves as chair of the WG&L board, said. “I don’t know if it’s a situation where they won’t tell us, or we just haven’t asked, but that should be a matter of public record and we have to got to get past all of these communication issues.”