ALBANY After lengthy debate, the Albany City Commission took its first preliminary vote on a 2013 fiscal budget that includes a 1.33 millage increase for residents of the city.
If formally adopted, the tax increase would mean about $53 more on the tax bill of someone whose property was worth $100,000, City Manager James Taylor said.
Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta, who along with Commissioner Jon Howard voted against the spending plan and its companion tax increase, vigorously debated against the need for any tax increase.
"I feel like a tax increase should be the absolute last resort," Marietta said. "I don't feel like we've exhausted other alternatives. My constituents don't need or want a tax increase."
Marietta urged Taylor and city staff to take another look at the budget for sales tax collections under the Local Option Sales Tax fund. Marietta pointed to a discrepancy between the amount budgeted and the amount collected for the current fiscal year as a place where they could see a real shift in revenues.
He also suggested the city revisit cutting cell phone usage, take home cars, and cut the city's Capital Improvement's budget by 20 percent and shift those funds into the city's general fund to help bridge the $2 million deficit the city is facing.
Still some on the commission say that, while it's not politically advantageous for any of them to raise taxes, that it needs to be done in order to help mitigate a more ominous financial disaster that is looming on the horizon when a $3 million-dollar-per-year injection of cash into the general fund from the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia dries up.
"No matter how you look at it, we need a millage increase. The only question is how we do it," Ward III Commissioner Christopher Pike said. "Do we raise it incrementally in small pieces that are a little more considerate to the taxpayers or do we wait, and then beat them over the head with a massive increase all at once in three years?"
Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff told his fellow commissioners that the city commission essentially voted to increase taxes when it voted roll back the millage three years ago; while also pointing to the city's unusually high number of tax-exempt organizations as one of the main reasons why revenues have steadily dropped.
"We have prolonged the agony. There was really no need to roll back the millage from 10.8 to 8.6 other than to get some folks re-elected," Langstaff said. "The reason for the millage increase is the 24.18 percent of tax exempt properties in this city. If we were like Valdosta-Lowndes who have only 7 percent of tax exempt properties, we could probably afford to roll back the millage again. If we're going to give property away for free, we're going to have to raise the millage."
Currently, the city is trying to close a $2 million budget gap even after city officials have taken measures to pull in additional revenues. Taylor has already siphoned funding from the Sewer Enterprise Fund and is proposing a withdrawal of $2.5 million from the city's reserve fund. Still, there is not enough.
The tentative budget vote comes as the city commission also voted to grant a $150,000 stipend to the Flint RiverQuarium but only if they agree to form a partnership with the Parks at Chehaw.
The city commission is currently the only local government that is providing the downtown educational attraction with funding. The Dougherty County Commission ceased funding two years ago.
Tuesday, commissioners agreed to give the Riverquarium a reduced amount of $150,000 but only if they agree to partially merge with the Parks at Chehaw to help reduce any duplication of services and lower costs.
"Both organizations are AZA certified and the people at Chehaw are trained to work in zoos and aquariums, so I don't see why we can't try to reduce any duplication of services," Langstaff said.
Marietta, who made the motion, suggested that the board give the Riverquarium 90 days to partially combine with Chehaw or risk losing the funding.
Commissioners will have to ratify the vote at a business meeting for it to be binding. The new fiscal year starts July 1.