Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Hearings on millage rate increase

From the local government ...

The FY09 Mayor’s Recommended Budget has been submitted to the Commission for review as required by law. The Mayor’s Recommended Budget proposes a millage rate of 13.30 for 2008, an increase of 0.50 of a mill, however, changes in current property assessments will result in an overall increase in property taxes by 9.7 percent. Pursuant to the requirements of Georgia Law (OCGA 48-5-32), three public hearings will be held during May to comply with the Taxpayer Bill of Rights:

Hearing #1 – Thursday, May 8 at 5:30 p.m. in the Planning Auditorium at 120 W. Dougherty Street.

Hearing #2 – Thursday, May 15 at 5:30 p.m. in the Planning Auditorium at 120 W. Dougherty Street.

Hearing #3 – Thursday, May 22 at 6:45 p.m. in the City Hall Commission’s Chambers at 301 College Avenue.

The FY09 Mayor’s Recommended Budget can be accessed on Athens-Clarke County’s Web site at www.athensclarkecounty.com. Copies of the FY09 Recommended Budget are also available for public inspection during normal office hours at the following locations: Office of the Manager, Room 304, City Hall; Athens Regional Library, 2025 Baxter Street; and the Clerk of Commission’s Office, Room 204, City Hall. For more information on the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, visit the Georgia Department of Revenue’s Web Site at http://www.etax.dor.ga.gov/ptd/adm/taxguide/rights.aspx.


Anonymous james said...

Thanks to Jmac for the opening.

TBOR applies to the Clarke County School District, too. Back in 2004, the District advertised and held hearings on a budget that did not include a millage rate increase. It later adopted a budget with a .25 mills increase; it neither advertised nor held public hearings on that budget. That action was blatantly illegal. TBOR plainly mandates that if a budget is increased after public hearings have been held,the process must begin anew.

The problem was that local officials had come to rely on the Department of Revenue's skewed interpretation of its own regulations. In order for that interpretation to be correct, the regulation in question that made a 3% allowance for "miscalculation" of a tax increase would have to apply to the entire amount of taxes collected during the previous year rather than to the amount of the proposed tax increase (which it does not), would have to be allowed for merely stuffing the budget with more spending rather than a legitimate mathematical error (which it does not), and most importantly would have had to supersede the public hearings requirements enshrined in state law (which it emphatically does not).

Every local and state official to which we made our case either brushed us off dismissively or simply presented straw man defenses to our arguments. Local officials relied on the 3% argument months before the county's tax digest was submitted to the DOR for certification - months before a miscalculation could have been determined - because they knew from past practice that it would be approved regardless of whether TBOR was followed - and they were correct.

I was told point blank by the head of the Property Tax Division that as long as the adopted budget was within 3% or what was advertised, DOR did not concern itself with what else may have happened. In other words, advertise no increase and get a 3% increase with no questions asked; advertise a 1% increase and get a 4% increase with no questions asked. Of course, this is directly contrary to the purpose of TBOR, which was to stop "back door" tax increases.

Our mistake was trying to work within the system to affect change - we should have simply filed suit and let the court slap the District down.

8:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's stopping the suit now?

2:49 PM  
Anonymous james said...

As I recall, the correct term would be "overestimation," not "miscalculation," but the point remains the same.

I'm not sure that such a suit is still feasible. We did talk with some attorneys at the time about dragging the matter into court, but would have had to pony up a sizable retainer to do so. Even so, there was no agreement as to against whom to file suit: the Board of Education (the requesting authority), the Commission (the levying authority), the Tax Commissioner (who signed off on the actions of the Board and the Commission), the Department of Revenue (that certified the digest), or some combination thereof.

Thus, in oder to take the matter to court, we would have been a couple of guys with no money taking on the combined resources of the CCSD, the Unified Government, and the State of Georgia.

Just a couple of the issues we would have to deal with now are:

The CCSD raised its millage rate to the constitutional limit of 20 mills the very next year. Thus, it would argue that what we contend was an illegal millage rate increase only affected a single year and that the the point was therefore moot.

Also, once the powers that be at DOR approved the Clarke County property tax digest (over our strenuous objections), their position was that their existed no legal authority to rescind that approval. Again, it would argue that the point was now moot. And the CCSD would point to that as a reason to dismiss the entire matter.

For what it is worth, the meeting we had with DOR folks in Atlanta was attended by a representative from the Attorney General's office - he exhibited not the slightest interest in our plight or legal arguments.

10:07 AM  

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