Backing away from an all-out war with the General Assembly, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners Wednesday rejected a proposed property tax increase that state lawmakers had forbidden.
Most Fulton commissioners believe they’re within their rights to approve a tax hike despite a new state law that prohibits them from raising the property tax rate for the next two years. But on Wednesday they said they didn’t think the proposed hike was the right thing to do for county taxpayers.
Commissioners voted 6-1 to approve a revenue-neutral general fund property tax rate. By the same margin they decided not to create a separate new tax levy for Grady Hospital.
“If we believe that people in this county can afford a tax increase this year – I’m talking about working families now, I’m talking about people on fixed income now – if we believe that, we’re not paying attention,” said Commissioner Emma Darnell.
The move may defuse – for now – an ongoing battle between Fulton County Democrats and the Republicans who control the General Assembly.
Claiming that Fulton County government is dysfunctional and spends too much, the General Assembly approved a series of measures this spring affecting county operations. Among other things, the proposals will redraw commission districts to create a new north Fulton commission seat and make it easier to fire county employees.
Lawmakers also approved a bill prohibiting commissioners from raising property tax rates until 2015 and requiring a supermajority of commissioners to raise taxes after that.
County officials say the legislation violates home-rule provisions of the state constitution. Last month commissioners passed a resolution repealing the state law, and they reaffirmed that vote Wednesday.
“It is our responsibility to set tax rates,” said Commissioner Joan Garner.
Last month they also unveiled a plan to create a new property tax levy to cover Fulton’s share of funding for Grady Hospital. It would have generated $55 million in new revenue for the county, which would have been dedicated to the hospital. Currently county funding comes from its general fund, which also pays for libraries, elections and other countywide services.
The result would have been a 1.49 mill tax increase, which would have cost the owner of a $200,000 house an extra $75 a year.
State lawmakers said the plan violated the spirit and the letter of the new state law. But on Wednesday commissioners rejected the tax hike.
“I think the county needs to learn to live within its means,” said Commissioner Liz Hausmann.
Only Commissioner Tom Lowe – a longtime Grady supporter – favored the new hospital levy. He cast his ballot without comment.
Commissioners approved a slight decrease in the general fund tax rate, from 10.281 mills to 10.211. Because property values are expected to rise slightly this year, the tax rate is expected to be revenue-neutral.
The tax vote might alleviate tensions between state and local officials in the short run. But relations are likely to remain hostile.
Commissioners object to the redistricting plan, which will eliminate an at-large seat held by Democrat Robb Pitts to create the new district in largely Republican north Fulton. It also places incumbent Democrats Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards in the same district.
Democrats and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are considering a federal lawsuit to overturn the redistricting plan, which they say illegally dilutes minority voting power.
Even as the fallout continues from the bill approved this year, north Fulton Republicans are considering taking additional steps next year.
A measure to double the county’s homestead exemption to $60,000 awaits action in the state Senate. And Republicans may introduce legislation making it harder to fire the county manager and giving the commission chairman more power.