After hearing from three residents who spoke at two public hearings, the Flowery Branch City Council approved, by a 3-2 vote, first reading of an ordinance Thursday night that would keep taxes the same for all residents except those who had higher reassessments this year.
Councilmen Joe Anglin and Chris Munday voted against the ordinance after telling the council that they would prefer that no taxpayers have an increased city tax burden.
The city is proposing keeping the millage rate at the same 3.264 mills it was last year. The millage rate equals $1 of taxes on every $1,000 of taxable value. Properties in Flowery Branch are assessed at 40 percent of their value, according Tammy Moon, the city’s finance director.
Moon said only taxpayers who had an increased reassessment in their property would see a tax increase.
All three of the people who spoke Thursday voiced concerns about the tax proposal.
“We know more money is coming in; I know my property went up in value,” said Michael Justice, who spoke at the night session. “I just don’t know what you’re doing with the money. ... Think about all the folks in the city. They need the money more than the city does.”
Chris Hartnett, one of the speakers in the morning hearing, asked the council not to raise taxes on anyone this year.
“You get a stream of revenue in from franchise tax, from utilities, phone bills, you have insurance companies that pay tax on properties insured in the city,” Hartnett said. “Citizens are getting squeezed by big increases in the school taxes and all kinds of different fees. This increase is not needed in the millage.”
Wally Stiving suggested the council raise the cost of liquor licenses for local businesses, telling council members it was cut by $1,000 for each of the businesses three years ago.
“I’m just saying bring it back up,” Stiving said of the liquor license fees. “Businesses are having a booming time, and it may offset some of the police cost to monitor some of the liquor stores.”
Mayor Mike Miller said the liquor fees were cut to bring the city “in line with where other jurisdictions are.”
The mayor also expressed concern in the morning session that the Tree Park Apartments property was valued at nearly double its previous value — up to more than $61 million in value from about $31 million. Miller and council members wondered if the property had been undervalued for a while, costing the city revenue for many years.
“My bigger problem is with the tax assessor’s office,” Miller said. “I don’t see how a property that’s been there for over 10 years can sit there and double (in value) overnight from $31 million to $61 million.”
Miller said he was concerned about other estimates from the assessor’s office, including Stiving reportedly getting a tax estimate from the assessor’s office that was at a previous year’s higher tax rate. Miller also noted that his personal property had been assessed by the county with nearly double the square footage than it actually had.
The mayor expressed concern that errors could cause more appeals to be won, meaning less revenue for the city, saying that if half of property assessments in the city were won on appeal, “we could vote to keep (the tax rate) at 3.264 and receive significantly less money.”
“We’re living on a hope and a prayer of an office that can’t even get an estimate right,” Miller said. “It’s a no-win situation for this body. If we roll it back and the appeals go through, then we’re in a huge hole.”
Steve Watson, chief appraiser for the Hall County Board of Tax Assessors, could not be reached Thursday to respond to Miller’s comments. An automated email response said he was out of the office until June 5.
Councilmen Anglin and Mundy said they would like to see taxes not increase for anyone and suggested that the city could reduce the millage back to the rollback rate of 3.012 mills, which would keep at least some residents who had their property reassessed at a higher value from having a tax increase.
“I’m of the thought that the property tax, even after the appeals, is most likely going to come in above last year,” Anglin said. “We need to be a trendsetter and say we’re not going to raise your taxes.”
Mundy agreed that the city could find ways to make up the loss in revenue in order to avoid raising any property taxes. He suggested building permits and insurance premiums, which are bringing in higher than projected revenue, could provide money to allow the tax rate to be reduced.
The council will hold its final hearing on the tax rate June 8 at 6 p.m. at City Hall on Main Street, the same night a public hearing is also scheduled for the 2018 fiscal year budget. Final approval of the tax rate and budget is set for June 15.