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Property tax hike last resort
Council tries to balance budget; water, sewer, sanitation rates expected to rise
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    While trying to balance next year's budget, the Statesboro City Council plans on raising fees for some city services but are committed to keeping property tax rates the same.
    According to the Budget Assumptions for the Fiscal Year 2011 Operating Budget for the City of Statesboro, which was handed out at the city council's recent annual budget retreat at the Pond House on Cypress Lake Road, property millage, business license fees, sanitation fees, tipping fees, water and sewer rates are all set to increase. However, council members say are doing what they can to keep millage rates from rising.
    “Based upon some of the moves that we have made and the restructuring that has taken place and will take place, we are trying as hard as we can to keep that from coming,” said Councilman Travis Chance. “We think we have it figured out where we will not raise (property) taxes.”
    Councilman Will Britt said the goal of the council during this budget season is to avoid a millage rate increase simply because Statesboro citizens cannot afford it in this down economy.
“I'm not going to George Bush-it and say, 'No new taxes-read my lips,'” Britt said. “But I am doing everything I can, our council is doing everything they can, our staff is doing everything they can, our mayor is doing everything he can - the raising the millage rate is absolutely our last resort.”
    The current millage rate for Statesboro is 6.921. A 1 mil increase on a property with a taxable value of $50,000 would equate to a $50 annual tax increase for the property owner.
    City Manager Shane Haynes said city staff has “done all the traditional things one might think of in trying to balance the budget.” He said there will be no cost of living or merit raises for city staff for the second year in a row, capital expenditures are being kept to a minimum and a number of open city staff positions may remain unfilled.
    While a property tax increase is considered a final option, the city is looking to increase water and sewer rates, sanitation fees and will set a floor price for natural gas service. Water and sewer, natural gas and sanitation all operate as enterprise funds, which are semi-autonomous units of the city, and the increased costs of running those enterprises are driving the rate increases.     Britt said property taxes go into the city's general fund while utilities fees feed the particular enterprise fund, so an increase in one does not necessarily affect the operation of another.
    “You could triple millage rates or could lower them, but there wouldn't be any effect on the price of water or the price of gas,” Britt said.
    Water and sewer base rates will each be increase by 50 cents per month. In addition, the water and wastewater rate will rise 10 cents per thousand gallons. For the average city customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water or less, the increase in their bill will be $1.60 per month.
    Water and Wastewater Director Wayne Johnson said the increases are due to the increased administrative demands put on the department by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
    “It's the new amount of meter testing and meter change-outs and paperwork all resulting from the increased cost and paperwork from the environmental division,” Johnson said.
    Johnson said the GEPD is requiring the city change out at least 10 percent of water meters this year. He said though this will mean an increase in meter change outs from 500 annually to 1,400 per year, he will not add additional staff to handle the additional workload in order to keep costs down.
   “We're just sucking it up and doing what we have to do,” Johnson said.
The city is expected to make the changes to water and sewer fees effective June 1, which would be reflected on customers' July bills. Other changes to the millage rate or utility fees would have to be approved by a majority vote of council. In addition, increasing the millage rate would require the city to hold a public hearing on the matter.
    There is also a proposed 3 percent increase in commercial and residential sanitation fees to offset nine years of inflation and the increased price of gasoline and diesel fuel. Haynes said the increase will help pay for replacement of equipment as well as make up for increased expenses.
    “We are proposing slight increases in those rates…to match the cost of doing business and inflation,” Haynes said. “We have rising cost of disposal because we have to haul the waste out of the county to Wayne County.”
    City staff has also proposed putting a base rate, or floor, of $5 for natural gas bills. Haynes said recent gas price fluctuations have driven the price of gas below the level where the city can recoup basic operating costs so a price floor, which is common in most natural gas systems, will be set. While the city will continue to adjust the cost of gas to the customer based on the market rate of natural gas, $5 will be minimum bill.
    In addition, the city's administration fee for a business license and the flat fee are both proposed to increase by $10.
    Phil Boyum may be reached at (912) 489-9454.