December 10, 2013 9:45:08 AM
When asked last week during a working retreat to list ways to bring more money into city coffers, a group of Columbus department heads had several suggestions.
Get the Columbus crime lab accredited and utilize it more effectively. Be more creative in raising fees from events at the Trotter Convention Center. Sell more city-owned real estate.
Another possibility discussed was a millage increase. One suggestion was that two mills would be sufficient to address prominent city infrastructure needs and staffing issues.
During their last budget session in September, councilmen opted against raising millage, keeping it at 40.13 with Columbus Municipal School District millage at 65.87. The value of a mill remained at $170,000.
Property taxes are calculated with mills. One mill is worth one-thousandth of a dollar. In this case, a property owner pays $40.13 for every $1,000 of assessed value on his or her property. The assessed value of a property is the appraised value multiplied by the assessment ratio (10 percent for residential properties). The owner of a property appraised for $100,000 in this example would owe about $400 in taxes. Municipalities, counties and school districts each establish their own millage rates to meet budgetary needs.
The Dispatch asked a quorum of councilmen for their reactions regarding the possibility of a millage increase.
Ward 3 councilman Charlie Box said it was "way too early" to begin entertaining the discussion.
"Everybody knows in the real world that one of these days that you're going to have to do something, but it's way premature to start suggesting numbers or increases," Box said. "I know what (the department heads) are thinking and I know where that's coming from, but I've fought against millage increases ever since I've been up there. We're told we can't operate without such and such (amount), and yet we've continued to cut expenses and we're just fine. We're tight and lean, but we've operated pretty good without millage increases."
Box noted he understood the position of department heads and elected leaders who saw the need for one, but doing so might achieve the opposite of their desired result.
"We're trying to keep this thing on an even keel and keep people from moving," Box said. "One of the main reasons people leave the city is they can move to the county and the taxes are lower. Millage increases are good, but they can turn around and cost you on the other side if you lose more people than what the millage would generate."
Ward 2 councilman Joseph Mickens said he also wasn't personally in favor of raising property taxes but it may be a necessity. The discussion came up during the latest budget meetings and while the idea was nixed this year, an increase would likely occur within the next two years, Mickens said.
He also said it would only be a matter of time before the school district raises millage and if the city decides it needs to do the same, it should wait until a year when the school district does not call for one.
"Some councilmen felt like we should have raised it (this year)," Mickens said. "We're going to have to do something this term. Now would be ideal to do it the second year of this term. I definitely see something happening. If it's going to happen, it's got to happen this year. It's the last thing we want to do and from a school standpoint that's the last thing they want to do. We are put in position to manage the city and sometimes when you're in that position, you have to make tough decisions. We don't want to put this on the people but in the meantime, you still have to look out for the best interest of the people."
Ward 4 councilman Marty Turner said an increase was "inevitable." The city faces so many pressing issues regarding quality of life that it would be impossible to adequately do anything about them without a millage increase, he said. He suggested school and city mills go up at the same time rather than being staggered.
"One pop. Just go ahead and do it," Turner said. "I know we're going to have criticism from the press, so we might as well do it. The press does not run the city of Columbus. The mayor and the city council run the city of Columbus. A lot of times councilmen will restrict themselves from doing anything to stop from getting negative press. I feel like we should do what we need to do for this city right now."
He added all residents have to share a financial sacrifice for the greater good of the city.
"No one likes new taxes. I don't like it, but we are in a shared community," Turner said. "It's a shared environment that we live in. Everyone wants a better school system. Everyone wants that, and I do too. Not only do I want the people of my ward on 26th and 27th Street North to be able to flush their toilet when it rains, be able to take a bath when it rains, be able to wash their dishes when it rains, I think they want a better school system also."
Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem said if the city is going to ask for more taxpayer money, it has to show them it can make cuts on its own end.
"I know tax increases, it's an ugly word around here," Karriem said. "I know people are having a hard time, but we've been kicking the can down the road for so long and we've got to find other avenues for revenue to come to the city. I don't think it's fair to ask for a millage increase if you're not willing to find ways to cut inside the city as well. I think they work hand in hand."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
1. Columbus loses a football legend COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
2. Vibrant Church launches $17 million expansion COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
4. City Council denies request for ordinance change COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
5. Supreme Court sides with Galanis family in appeal STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY