September 27, 2013

Some Whitfield taxpayers will see rates go up

Charles Oliver

— Those who own property in Whitfield County outside the city of Dalton will see their county tax rates go up this year.

The Board of Commissioners voted 4-0 on Thursday to keep the county’s tax rate for its maintenance and operations budget steady at 6.061 mills. But commissioners also voted to set a cumulative tax of 2 mills for three new special tax districts, effectively raising the county’s property tax rate outside the city of Dalton by almost a third.

“Nobody likes a tax increase,” said board Chairman Mike Babb. “But we’ll be able to pay our bills for the next year. I know that there are some people who say ‘Cut, cut, cut.’ But this Board of Commissioners has looked over our budget and we don’t believe there are any significant cuts we can make without affecting our services.”

Officials project that an individual owning a home assessed at $100,000 who also qualifies for the $20,000 homestead exemption will see a tax increase of $40.

“Maybe someday someone will run for the board calling to end the recreation department and to get rid of all our professional firefighters and rely only on volunteers. That would let the county cut its spending, and I’d be happy to run against that person,” Babb said.

Officials project the new tax districts will collect a total of $3.1 million, with more than half of that money going to the fire department.

Commissioner Lynn Laughter said the commissioners had no alternative to creating the special tax districts.

“We were required to do this by the LOST (Local Option Sales Tax) agreement the board signed last year,” she said.

That agreement, signed by the county and the city of Dalton, called for special tax districts outside the city to fund services that are used primarily by those who live outside Dalton as well as the county’s share of services funded jointly with the city. The districts cover all of the county except the city of Dalton.

Commissioners agreed to create the districts after a state Superior Court judge found in favor of 15 cities that sued Gwinnett County, ruling the city’s residents don’t have to pay taxes to fund services that primarily benefit residents of unincorporated Gwinnett. Gwinnett officials at first filed an appeal, but in early 2012 they agreed to settle the lawsuit and create four special tax districts to fund services such as fire protection and police services outside those cities that provide those services.

Commissioners said the outcome of that court case played a major role in their decision to agree to create special tax districts.

“Even after this tax increase, our total revenues will remain about the same. We’ll have about $3 million in new property tax money, but we are also getting $3 million less in LOST money,” Babb said.

Under the LOST agreement signed last year, the county’s share of tax revenue dropped to 64.851 percent this year from 83.24 percent under the previous 10-year agreement.