Fire tax increases, but Fayette keeps property tax rate steady

Instead of raising property taxes countywide to offset declining property values, the Fayette County Commission will balance the budget by taking $2.8 million from the county’s unrestricted cash reserves.

The commission voted Aug. 23 to keep its millage rates the same for the general fund, EMS and E-911 services, but the fire service millage rate will increase just over half a mill.

This increase will not affect properties in Fayetteville or Peachtree City since they operate their own fire departments. Rather, the increase will impact homes in Tyrone, Brooks, Woolsey and the unincorporated county which are all served by the Fayette County Fire Department.

A homeowner with a home valued at $250,000 would pay an additional $50 a year for fire services under the proposed millage increase. But if a $250,000 home had its value decrease by the average drop in values to $218,000, the homeowner would realize only a $10 increase on his yearly tax bill, county officials have said.

Without the tax increase, the county faced laying off fire personnel, which would have resulted in a service cut, county officials have said previously.

Commissioner Allen McCarty confirmed with staff that if firemen had been laid off, the county likely would have had its ISO rating reviewed with a likely increased insurance premium cost to individual property owners that would have cost more than the property tax increase.

Public Safety Director Allen McCullough also noted that if there were staff cuts, the county would be dropping to having one person on some engines, whereas currently two firefighters respond on each engine, which he said is critical, particularly in the rural areas.

The fire millage tax increase will also allow the fire department to replace some apparatus in the future, a plan that had been on hold in recent years due to the downturn in the economy.

Commissioner Steve Brown was the lone vote against the millage rate adoption, saying he has clearly stated his objections before. Brown is against spending the money in cash reserves to balance the budget but he has offered no specific cuts to make in the budget to wipe out the shortfall.

Taking the $2.8 million from cash reserves to balance the general fund budget still leaves the county with $10 million in unrestricted cash reserves along with an additional $2 million “emergency” fund and three additional months’ worth of operating expenses.

Those rainy-day funds have been built up over the past several years as the county has enacted hiring freezes and chopped other projects for savings.

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