To her credit, Goreham is willing to take the political risk of putting the tax hike in play as she and her fellow commissioners grapple with a $31 million budget deficit. Along with floating a millage rate increase, Goreham told the Journal "no options are off the table," and she believes "there are going to be furlough days, salary reductions and cuts in services."
Part of the problem, Goreham says, is Cobb's enviably low 9.6 millage rate, one of the biggest selling points for the county. "Since 1992, we've consistently cut the millage rate from 12.2 to 9.6 because we had revenues coming in and a huge, healthy tax base." But she says tax cuts were overdone. "We set an artificially low millage rate, one that I believe is too low for a county of this size." She pointed to comparable-sized Gwinnett County with its rate of just over 13 mills.
The alternative to raising the property tax is supposed to be cutting the fat and tightening the belt.
Goreham says the commissioners "have responded aggressively" to community demand for austerity measures. She cites a hiring freeze in place since FY 2007 along with an early retirement incentive program; reduction of the operating budget by $19.6 million in 2009 and by $13.4 million in 2010. In that period, 171 full-time county jobs were cut. They were significant steps.
But they have been insufficient in the face of the continuing economic decline. In addition, the county continues to experience "greater than expected declines in the property tax forecasts," Goreham said. The county's property tax digest has plunged nearly 11 percent since 2007 and expects an additional drop of six percent in the 2011 digest.
The issue comes down to "how to pay for the services our citizens require versus which services should we reduce or eliminate," Goreham wrote in a letter to the editor. "Every option is being considered."
County employees have to be increasingly nervous not only about jobs, but benefits. Goreham pointed out that health care costs have been rising by 10 percent a year, and "mandated accounting practices require" county payments into retirement funds "at levels that are financially challenging."
Goreham said the commission needs to address those issues now "along with other possible actions such as employee furloughs, use of reserves, sale of assets and an increase in millage rates, even if only temporarily."
Raising taxes is a very long shot at best and Commissioner Goreham's proposal for even a temporary hike in the millage rate appears to be dead on arrival at the board of commissioners with no visible support for the idea.
A tax increase of any kind seems highly unlikely in the present climate when there's growing concern about a double-dip recession. That dog will have a lot of trouble hunting in Cobb.