Over the past six weeks, there has been a good deal of discussion by this newspaper concerning the millage rate and the budget of the City of Swainsboro. In the interest of fairness, I think it would now be helpful to provide more information for this discussion, and I appreciate the opportunity to do so.
Let me first make it as clear as I possibly can in saying that no one dislikes taxes more than I. Every mayor and city council member I have ever known has searched long and hard for ways to reduce city taxes. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that cities cost money to operate. This is where the true picture of city budgets takes shape. Obviously, larger cities collect more property tax, ad valorem tax, sales tax, business license fees, and user fees depending on whatever utilities that city may offer.
Smaller cities with fewer tax-paying citizens and fewer retail stores naturally collect smaller revenue amounts. Swainsboro is right in the middle of the comparison chart. Swainsboro serves a population or nearly 7,700 people with a “daytime working” population of 9,569. This puts our city in a category all its own when comparing it to Louisville (2,600 people), Eastman (4,998 people), Metter (3,960 people) or comparing it to Dublin, (15,828 people) or Vidalia, (10,845). To compare Swainsboro to these particular cities is not actually relevant. Nevertheless, it is true that in the smaller cities with fewer people, it takes less money to provide water, waste water, roads, police, fire and public works operations, and conversely, the larger cities will have a richer tax base from which to draw from in supporting its budget.
In addition, many cities small and large have extra revenue streams from the sale of electricity, natural gas, cable TV, internet service, and telephone which is a major help in supporting their budgets and keeping millage rates low. Unfortunately, Swainsboro’s only supplemental income is from the sale of water and wastewater services. We should also be fair and honest in examining and comparing the tax base in Swai’nsboro. The median household income in Swainsboro is $26,604, one of the lowest of any city in the surrounding area. The median home appraised value is $69,300 again one the lowest of any city in the surrounding area. In housing, more people in Swainsboro rent than own homes. These facts mean that the overall economic strength of the community in terms of the tax base is not strong.
Consequently, there is less money in circulation, fewer stores to provide jobs and services, and less taxable income and tax on sales. All of this puts more of a budget burden on property tax, which results in an increase in millage. The productive approach to this problem is to grow our tax base with more business activity, more new housing, more commercial revenue, and increased population so that the tax rates are fair and more evenly spread among property owners.
In this discussion, I would also suggest millage rates should not be thought of as the only way to evaluate a city’s tax structure and liability. In real-world terms, the only true picture of the difference a property tax between towns would be the side-by-side comparison of actual tax bills on similar properties. When this was recently done, the results showed that city taxes on a $100,000 house were either close to the same or even less in Swainsboro than nearby towns. To compare the total impact and effect of property tax between cities using nothing but the millage rate is sort of like driving down the road with blinders on at night. You will see a very narrow glimpse of where you are headed, but you will miss the larger picture. Cities prepare financial statements using different criteria for organizing information and numbers. Without examining these budgets line by line, you are comparing apples to oranges when you post bigs and pieces of information from internet sources comparing municipal budgets. Many of the services provided by the City of Swainsboro included in the financial report are not shown on any form. That is clearly illustrated by the fact that this city does not charge for impact fees, does not impose the full charge standard formula for building permits, or does not impose added fees required by many state mandated regulations. Most surrounding cities charge citizens for the pick-up of discarded household goods and even yard rubbish of excessive sizes. This city does not charge for that nor does it charge for semi-annual disposal of automobile and truck tires. This city does not charge for assistance in working with the development authority to bring manufacturing jobs here as we did with Nordson, America Knits, Hotset, Wincore, and Faircloth Forest Products. There is much more that could be told, but the point is this: you don’t always see the level of service of an organization or a city government written on a ledger sheet.
I will agree with those who feel our city budget seems high. When I became mayor, the millage rate was already at its current level. It has gone down slightly since then, but never increased. In late summer of every year, city government meets and works on ideas and proposals for bringing expenditures down and even eliminating some programs. We have done that many, many times, but we also think about new possibilities and opportunities that will make this a better place. It is a balancing act to hold the line on spending while still providing citizens with the services and the city that they want. During the last decade and a half, this city has provided new facilities for police and fire departments, rebuilt our water/wastewater treatment plant, opened the East Georgia Regional Airport, closed an old city landfill and successfully permitted a new one, paved more than 85 city streets and brought new recreational, seasonal and cultural activities to the community. All of that was done without using tax money from the property owners in Swainsboro. That is a collective effort of the people who are elected by this town’s voters. There is often disagreement, and sometimes progress is hard to bring about, but that is the system we honor in this country. We are always interested in any suggestions or well thought out ideas for improvements in the government of this city that you may have. You are encouraged to bring them to us.
I will close by thanking you for printing this and by reminding your readers that every city is unique.
Every city has special challenges, goals and gifts. But the one thing that every city has to have to grow and prosper is the strength and spirit of its people. That is the secret to success, and that is beyond the measure of dollars and cents.