Nine mayors have asked to meet with DeKalb County officials to explain why the 2012 county property taxes were raised for the cities from 7 to 15 percent while the millage rates for unincorporated areas remained the same.
“The county did not advertise that they were raising the millage rate and did not hold a public hearing,” Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson said. “Cities believe they should have had to advertise. We were under the impression that millage rate would remain the same.”
Clarkson said the mayors would not have known the county taxes that affect cities had been raised if The Crier had not reported it.
The mayors of all the cities in DeKalb, except Atlanta, signed an Aug. 10 letter to DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis and the county commissioners requesting a meeting in the next 30 days to discuss the 2012 millage rates that the commissioners adopted on July 10.
The cities and county took five years to negotiate a new service delivery strategy (SDS), a state required plan for delivering county services to cities and for funding those services. The commissioners approved the new SDS in December 2010 and it will remain in effect until Oct. 31, 2016.
In the letter the mayors said the SDS provided fair taxation for all citizens of the county and expressed “significant concerns that the recently set millage rates for the special tax districts do not appear to be consistent with the letter or spirit of the SDS.”
“The integrity of the SDS depends on a reasonable and transparent setting of the millage rates for the special tax districts,” the letter said.
Under the SDS, each city could opt to receive services from the county related to roads, parks and specialized police services, which would be paid for by special tax districts.
In July the CEO proposed and the commissioners approved the 2012 millage rates for special tax districts in all the cities and unincorporated DeKalb.
While the 2012 tax for the police fund dropped by 36.87 percent in unincorporated DeKalb, the police millage rates for some cities that use non-basic police services, like the helicopter and SWAT team, saw their millage rates increase and others saw it decrease by a smaller amount.
The police millage rose in Chamblee by 18.18 percent, Decatur by 11.11 percent and Stone Mountain by 3.33 percent. However, the police millage rate dropped in Avondale Estates, Clarkston, Lithonia and Pine Lake by less than 3 percent.
The millage rates for roads and parks special tax districts dropped by 36 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
The reduced tax rates in the special tax districts helped to offset the increases in countywide taxes that apply to all cities and the unincorporated area.
The countywide millage rates rose 10.6 percent for general operations and 6.82 percent for the hospital fund, and dropped 19.54 percent for countywide bond debt.
The county also raised the tax for the fire department, which everyone uses except Atlanta and Decatur, by 21.85 percent. The fire district millage rate rose from 2.7 to 3.29 mils but it could have been worse. The week before the tax rates were adopted, the administration proposed to the finance committee that the fire millage go up to 3.75.
In the end, Dunwoody, which only uses the fire service, had the highest county millage increase (15.25 percent) followed by Doraville (9.84 percent), Chamblee (9.9 percent) and Stone Mountain (9.7 percent).
The total tax rate for unincorporated DeKalb remained the same while Decatur had the smallest increase among the cities (7.06 percent).
“Somewhere in this there is some injustice,” Clarkson said, adding that it looks like the county was manipulating money to work out to their advantage.
“They should have let us know that they were going to raise our taxes,” Clarkson said.
Clarkson suspects the increased millage rates will cause a “double whammy” for the cities. The differential between the millage rates for residents of cities and unincorporated DeKalb is a component in the formula the state uses to distribute revenue from HOST (Homestead Option Sales Tax) to the cities for public works projects.
The millage increases in the cities will cause more HOST money to stay in the county, Clarkson said, adding, “This leads us to believe the county knew what they were doing.”
“We want to understand how they did their calculations,” Dunwoody City Manager Warren Hutmacher said. “We want to make sure special tax districts are implemented consistent with the Service Delivery Strategy.”
Because the millage rates are already set for this year and the county collects the taxes for the cities, Hutmacher said it would be impractical at this point to reset the millage rates this late in the year.
“Next year the cities will be more engaged earlier in the process,” Hutmacher said.
Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss said in the future the cities will be more involved in monitoring the county budget process.
In their budget priorities resolution last September, the county commissioners urged the CEO to include in his 2012 budget recommendation estimates for each tax levy of the county. This was not included in the December budget announcement. The resolution also said the Commission opposed a tax rate increase for 2012 but “this does not necessarily apply to individual millages, if increases in one millage are offset by a decrease in another.”