Richard Thomas, a concerned citizen, speaks to the county commission about a proposed tax increase during a public hearing Monday.
ALBANY, Ga. — In a split decision, the Dougherty County Commission voted Monday to increase ad valorem taxes on those who own property in the unincorporated area of the county for the first time since 2002. The commission also unanimously agreed to reform the budget process to avoid future increases.
The vote was 4-2 with Commissioners John Hayes and Ewell Lyle voting against. Commissioner Muarlean Edwards was absent from the meeting with a medical problem, Chairman Jeff Sinyard said.
The vote means that county citizens with property outside the city of Albany will see their property taxes go up by 2 mills. While the dollar amount will vary, that increase means that a property owner whose home is valued at $100,000 would pay an additional $80 per year in taxes.
Hayes and Lyle, both members of the county's Finance Subcommittee that voted to pass the budget prepared by County Administrator Richard Crowdis along to the full commission for consideration, each said that he didn't believe the county had done enough to avoid having to raise taxes, albeit for different reasons.
Hayes reiterated his stance that the county had to look in more creative places for additional revenues.
"My vote was not in rebellion with what the committee had done," Hayes said. "Whether or not more could've been done is where I'm conflicted. ... Putting an additional burden on the taxpaying public is hard and something I don't know how to do."
Lyle, meanwhile, has pushed his colleagues on the commission to cut spending to whatever levels will accommodate the revenues that already exist.
"Several people have articulately stated that this is really nothing more than a stop-gap measure at best," Lyle said. "When do we start to put the brakes on here?"
Commissioner Lamar Hudgins, who heads the county's Finance Committee, argued with the notion offered by some who have voiced disdain with the commission for considering a tax increase that the county has had a history of raising taxes by pointing to the millage history in the unincorporated area.
"The last time the millage rate was increased in that budget was 10 years ago," Hudgins said. "We don't have a history of increasing the millage rate. It's just not there. Our choices here aren't good. It's like giving you the option to either be hanged or shot, but I'm not going to jeopardize the public safety of the people of Dougherty County just so I can throw my arms back and say that I didn't vote for a tax increase."
The commission didn't have to wait long to get the first semblance of budget reform started.
In response to the budget issues that prompted the commission to vote to raise the millage rate, Commissioner Gloria Gaines offered a resolution that would require county staff to develop meaningful budget reform and present it to the commission for approval no later than January.
The resolution passed unanimously.
The votes came after the last of three public hearings was held in which three people took to the podium to criticize the commission's consideration of a tax increase.
Charles Westbrook, who has been a fixture at the county finance meetings, asked commissioners to consider their proposed plan for a tax increase as a medical procedure.
"What are you going to do, bleed to death or fix the problem?" Westbrook said. "The unincorporated area is bleeding to death, and a tax increase will not fix the problem."
Richard Thomas, a former candidate for the commission, had some tough words for the board as well as some suggestions that included a fresh look at consolidating city and county governments, creating a county fire department, redefining tax exemptions and privatizing Public Works.
"I understand that demand for services of a municipality do not change with bad times; however, neither is the county an employment agency or babysitter for non-essential personnel, especially when we are all laying off employees and tightening our belts," Thomas said.
Thomas also spoke of dealing with the "hoodlums" who have threatened the way of life for people within the county, recalling a conversation he had with a friend in Sylvester whom he said predicted how bad times would be when children born to drug-addicted mothers grew up.
"And now we're seeing it. The crack babies and meth babies are growing up into uneducatable teens who are reproducing," Thomas said. "We've got to disincentivize these kinds of pregnancies through a partnership with the health department."
Specifically, he talked of birth control devices for girls and paying them $100 per month as long as they stay in school, graduate and don't get pregnant.
While former Albany City Commissioner Laurie Jenkins didn't specifically speak against a property tax increase, she did take to the open mic as an opportunity to speak against the upcoming special-purpose local-option transportation sales tax question on the July 31 ballot.
Jenkins said that residents of the unincorporated area were already saddled with enough of a financial burden and didn't need the T-SPLOST or the property tax increase.
"It seems wrong to me, vulgar even, to run people off of their property," Jenkins said, speaking of a proposal to widen Georgia Highway 133 from Albany to Moultrie, a project that would require the purchase of rights-of-way through private property. "I know Mr. (Spencer) Lee (the Dougherty County attorney) doesn't believe the two are interconnected, but they are."