0821BudgetGov. Sonny Perdue talks with The Times about the state budget.
Gov. Sonny Perdue said if local governments want to blame him for their tax woes, he’ll come to their town and "show them the facts."
Perdue has frozen the $428 million in grants that had been set to go out this year as the state scrambles to close a budget shortfall. He said Tuesday that he’d like to see the grants — which local officials say average about $200 to $300 per household — scrapped altogether.
The governor, in an interview with The Times, said local governments have had a built-in tax hike through increased property assessments.
"I would tell every citizen to go back and look at their tax bill on like minded property from 2000 or 2001 and then look at what it was this last year," he said. "It’s pretty clear that some counties are bigger abusers than others. There are some counties that have grown overall by 100 to 200 percent. The growth of local governments compared to state government is phenomenal."
Perdue said he was calling on local governments to tighten their belts, just like the state.
"The state government has been essentially flat in our per capita tax utilization," he said. "I’m calling on our local governments to be just as efficient because it effects the same citizens."
The governor said local governments are already pointing the finger at him.
"They blame me and say we’re going to pass them (tax losses) right on to our citizens and you’re causing their tax increase," he said. "I’ve got the facts to prove the state didn’t cause their tax increase. Those are decisions made at the local level. If they want to blame me, I’ll challenge any of them to a public hall meeting in their own community and show them the facts."
The tax relief grants are provided to local governments and passed along to homeowners as a tax credit. The grants, adopted by Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, are one area state officials are eyeing as they look to slash about $1.6 billion from the state budget. Facing a sluggish economy, state tax collections in Georgia have slowed to a trickle.
The Hall County school system would bear the biggest brunt of loss of the funds. While School Superintendent Will Schofield is hoping the legislature will reverse the governor’s decision, he made no bones about his disagreement with the chief executive.
"We have this shift of Atlanta backing away from the obligation to fund local schools and we’ve seen that in the form of an 8 percent reduction toward costs of a local education," Schofield said. "I just have to disagree with the governor that what local governments have done is not tighten their belts. You can’t pull state funding away with one hand and force us by requirements to offer the same services and the only other method we have to gain revenue is local property taxes."
For the city government of Gainesville, the impact is not as great, amounting to about $80,000.
"Obviously a dollar is a dollar and everything is important, but as a percentage of the total it is a small amount of funds to the city," said City Manager Bryan Shuler.
Perdue is likely to face stiff opposition from state lawmakers who fear elimination of the grants could push property taxes higher in a year when they had pledged to lower them.
"We want to keep them," House Rules Committee Chairman Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, said. "We agree that there is a problem with the growth of local government, but they (the grants) are tax relief for homeowners."
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, R-Chestnut Mountain, who presides over the state Senate, echoed that sentiment.
"We need to keep this grant intact so that Georgia’s homeowners are not affected any further in this current economy," Cagle said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.