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By Eric Stirgus May 20, 2013

Fulton leader uses tax rate to make case in battle with state lawmakers

The year was 1991.

U.S. military forces ousted Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait in what was called Operation Desert Storm. The Atlanta Braves thrilled the city with an improbable World Series appearance. "The Silence of the Lambs" won the Oscar for Best Picture. Basketball legend Michael Jordan won his first pro championship.

And Fulton County commissioners raised the millage rate, causing property taxes -- and anger -- to rise in Georgia’s highest-populated county.

Now, Fulton officials are upset with state lawmakers, who passed a series of bills this year that the lawmakers believe will improve county operations. County Chairman John Eaves made the argument that Fulton is a well-run county in a recent television interview.

"The facts are Fulton County has not increased its millage rate since 1991," Eaves told Channel 2 Action News’ Lori Geary. "So why fix something that’s not broken?"

PolitiFact Georgia was curious whether Eaves was indeed correct about his claim that county commissioners haven’t raised the millage rate in more than two decades.

For several years, Republican state lawmakers from north Fulton have battled with the Democratic-led County Commission over the direction of the county government. Many of the lawmakers and their constituents say they’re not getting their money’s worth in services for the taxes they pay. There’s been talk, and unsuccessful legislation at the state level, to split Fulton into two counties. Fulton has 920,583 residents, according to the 2010 U.S. census.

The tax for general county services in Fulton is currently 10.281 mills, which equates to about $720 on a $250,000 home with a homestead exemption. But total property taxes in Fulton vary, depending on what part of the county the property is located. Cities add their own millage rates, increasing the overall rate. Then, there are other charges for bond payments, the county’s school system and other services. Fulton’s school board sets its own property tax rate.

In 1991, county commissioners voted 4-3 to raise property taxes. Then Chairman Michael Lomax said the increase was necessary to help fund Grady Memorial Hospital. Some residents unsuccessfully tried to recall Lomax. Eaves was first elected as chairman in 2006.

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Since 1991, the county government’s millage and bond rate has gradually declined. In 2011, though, it rose from 10.28 mills to 10.55 mills to help fund a library construction program. Fulton voters passed the proposed $275 million library program in 2008. Fulton public affairs manager Jessica Corbitt told us the increase of 0.27 mills was to the bond millage rate, not the general fund millage rate. It was listed on Fulton tax bills as a separate millage rate.

The county chairman’s comments, though, do not reflect some property tax changes in a portion of Fulton.

The county has a Special Services District for a portion of its south Fulton residents. The Georgia Legislature created the district in 2006 after the cities of Chattahoochee Hills, Johns Creek, Milton and Sandy Springs were all created. South Fulton leaders pushed for the district to ensure funding for services in that portion of the county as those cities, most of them in the north, were being created.

The millage rate for the South Fulton Special Services District was 5.73 mills in 2006, county financial records show. It declined slightly to 5.66 mills in 2007 and 2008. The rate rose sharply in 2009 to 8.16 mills, the records show. It went up in 2011 to 8.97 mills and again in 2012 to 10.47 mills.

The county said in its 2012 budget book that the most recent increase was primarily due to lower assessments on property values and that the county needed the additional money to maintain the same level of service to residents there. The increases are a direct result of the defections of Johns Creek, Milton and Sandy Springs, as well as plummeting property values brought on by the Great Recession, county officials have said.

Corbitt confirmed the accuracy of the financial records. She defended Eaves’ statement in the television interview.

"While it is true that the millage rate has increased for the special services district, which serves approximately 10 percent of the county’s population, the discussions related to the Fulton County legislation have primarily focused on the Countywide General Fund. With regard to the General Fund, the Chairman’s statement is completely accurate," Corbitt said via email.

To sum up, Eaves said the county has not increased its millage rate since 1991. But the millage rate in the South Fulton Special Services Fund, which affects about 90,000 people, has increased several times in recent years.

Corbitt said the south Fulton millage rate increases are not relevant to the ongoing debate. Still, Eaves would have been more precise if he had specified the difference. We rate this claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Channel 2 Action News story on Fulton County, May 3, 2013.

Emails from Jessica Corbitt, public affairs manager, Fulton County, May 8, 10 and 14, 2013

Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s office millage rate history.

Fulton County 2004 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

Fulton County 2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

Fulton County 2012 proposed budget.

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Fulton leader uses tax rate to make case in battle with state lawmakers

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