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Tax hike 'morally wrong'
Commissioners vote to keep M&O rate, raise fire rate
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Forsyth County News
One Forsyth County commissioner's change of heart last week altered the outcome of a vote to raise taxes in 2010.

At the final millage rate public hearing Thursday night, an attempt to increase the county's maintenance and operations levy failed 2-3 when Commissioner Patrick Bell changed his previous vote for the tax hike.

Commissioners Jim Harrell and Brian Tam also opposed the increase.

The board of commissioners then voted 4-1 to leave the maintenance and operations rate at 3.834 mills for 2010. Chairman Charles Laughinghouse opposed the measure.

"It doesn't take courage to say 'I'm not going to do this.' It takes courage to stand up and do what you feel is right," Laughinghouse said.

Bell and Harrell vowed to find other ways to cover a projected $7.6 million shortfall in the preliminary 2010 budget.

"It would be morally wrong for us to raise our millage rate until we get our own financial house in order," Bell said. "Now is the time for government to exercise fiscally conservative practices and living within its means."

Harrell cautioned residents that "some service levels in the county will have to be lowered."

"That's OK with me. This is a close call, and we will have some tough decisions to make without the tax increase," Harrell said.

The board did unanimously approve a 0.076 increase in the fire millage rate, which on a home assessed at $200,000 means $5.47 more per year. The revenue generated from this will be used for replacing fire department equipment.

Eric Lurie told the board that low taxes are what keeps him in Forsyth County.

"The primary reason I live in south Forsyth versus Fulton [is] Fulton has bloated, inefficient government with very high taxes and the brand we have here in Forsyth County historically has been low taxes, and people generally have been willing to accept lower service levels in order to have lower taxes," Lurie said.

Others at the meeting vented about the economic situation.

Tony Martinez said the proposed increase in taxes "may not be a big deal to you, but it's a big deal to me and to many of the taxpayers and property owners."

Al Tryba criticized Forsyth County Chief Financial Officer Bill Thomas, directing blame at him for budgetary issues.

Bell and Harrell defended Thomas, saying such comments were misdirected.

"I'm not happy with the way things went, but I can't sit here and let Mr. Thomas take the heat for it," Bell said.

Harrell echoed those remarks.

"Folks, the CFO is your friend. He has been most helpful in getting our fiscal house in order," Harrell said.

For Forsyth County, getting things in order could mean a countywide effort, including furloughs, unpaid holidays, layoffs and employee health care cuts, among other options.

The board could address what Thomas has called the "most immediate" of financial problems -- a projected $5.7 million gap in the general fund -- in an Aug. 25 work session.

One of the methods by which the board planned to tackle the shortfall was the millage rate increase. The proposed 0.668 hike in maintenance and operations would have generated $5.7 million in 2010.

While the board voted 3-2 June 30 to proceed with the tax increase, Thursday was not too late to change the tax levy -- as long as the rate went down and not up.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard said the Georgia Department of Revenue handbook "anticipates that a governing authority can establish a millage that is less than the advertised rate without having to go through the process [of public hearings] again."

A mill is equal to $1 for each $1,000 in assessed property value. Assessed value is 40 percent of actual market value.

E-mail Frank Reddy at