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Taxes emerge as key election issue




Columbus voters Tuesday will pick City Council candidates in an election with property tax increases among the key issues to ponder in casting ballots. 


"I don''t like my taxes going up 39 percent, but I understand why they''ve gone up," said Republican Ward 6 City Council candidate Bill Gavin. 


City residents and businesses are paying more taxes because their properties'' reappraised value is higher, said Tax Assessor-Collector Greg Andrews. Cities are required by state law to revalue properties every four years to determine how much to charge taxpayers. 


Also factored into Columbus'' tax increases is the $22 million bond issue voters approved in 2008 for the city school system, Andrews said. 


However, the City Council didn''t bring that, said Republican Ward 6 incumbent Jerry Kendall. "That wasn''t the city. The people voted for that," he said. "That would certainly increase taxes because the voters approved of it." 


Republican Ward 3 City Councilman Gene Coleman said most of the tax increase -- 60 to 70 percent -- is because school district voters approved the debt-causing bonds to build a Columbus school and help pay for it with higher taxes. He said he based that on information he compiled from the tax collector''s office and the higher taxes paid on a house. 


Andrews said Thursday he had not figured how much of the tax increase is caused by the school bond issue and the higher valued properties in Columbus. 


The city has gotten more revenues also because of business developments like new restaurants that augment the property tax base, Andrews said. 


He noted the Columbus City Council did not lower the tax millage rate as city coffers got the additional $950,000 from its higher-valued tax base -- another factor in why property owners are paying higher taxes. 




Increased property values 


For a house valued in 2004 at about $82,700, the annual property tax was $893, he said. The tax on that same house this year is $1,156 with its reassessed value being $105,900. 


This tax is to support Columbus and Lowndes County governments and the Columbus school system. 


Andrews noted the school district''s share of this house''s tax rose from $385 in 2007 to $516 in 2008. That 35 percent increase is larger than the additional revenues going to the county and city. The city''s tax share from that house rose from $302 to $389, he said. 


Coleman''s Republican challenger disputed the Ward 3 incumbent''s contention that most of the tax increase can be attributed to the school bond issue. 


"To say it caused taxes to go up 60 to 70 percent is false," said Charlie Box. "That''s absolutely, blatantly false." 




Columbus Municipal School District bond issue 


Columbus voters in January 2008 approved borrowing the $22 million through bonds to build a middle school and make other improvements. Prior to the referendum, they were told the costs of this would cause a minimal increase in their property taxes: about $30 more a year for a homeowner with a house assessed at $100,000 the first six years of the 17-year loan term. 


Box said school district administrators have been "frugal" in how they''ve administered the funds and held the line on taxes they impose. He said the City Council could have done the same and actually lowered Columbus'' tax rate. 


"They need to be looking at ways to cut spending and not increase taxes," Box said. "There are a lot of things the city could do to cut spending rather than raise taxes." 


Kendall said the six-member City Council increased the tax rate only slightly to help support the pension fund for Columbus police officers and firefighters. 


It set the tax millage rate last year not knowing properties would be more valuable and produce more revenues, Coleman said. "At the time we set the budget, reappraisal was not in the picture," he said. 




Property taxes up, sales tax collections down 


While property tax revenues are up, the city''s sales tax collections are down , he said. A cut in the city''s property tax rates would deprive the municipal government of needed revenues, Coleman said. 


"Had we cut taxes, it would cost us services -- and the public would have been outraged," he said. 


"It would be cuts in services -- in the police department and fire department and public works," he said. "There''s no fat in our budget." 


Gavin said the City Council needs new "vision" to attract more businesses and residents to enlarge the city''s tax base and thus lessen the overall burden on Columbus'' current property owners. 


"We might could have headed off these tax increases," he said. 


"It seems like the solution to every problem is to raise property taxes and not look elsewhere," Gavin said. 


"I wish he would tell me where," Kendall said. "We can give you as much government as you want or as less." 


Columbus in 2006 had about 24,200 people, according to the U.S. Census'' latest estimate. That''s down from the 25,900 counted by the 2000 Census. Of that population, 54 percent were black and 44 percent were white. 


There were about 11,100 housing units, of which 54 percent were occupied by their owners. The median value of these 5,126 owner-occupied homes was $67,900.




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