We have all received our property tax assessments for 2018, some reasonable, but most questionable, and many are currently going through the appeal process. Residents that have appealed will be billed at 85 percent of the assessed value until their appeal is heard by the Board of Equalization.
Before appeals are finalized, taxing jurisdictions must determine a millage rate, so each entity can begin their July 1 fiscal year with a thoughtful, fair and transparent budget. Atlanta Public Schools (APS) accounts for approximately 50 percent of each tax bill, and that money makes up 73 percent of the APS General Fund.
The APS 2019 fiscal year budget process began September 2017 and continued until the budget was adopted by the Atlanta Board of Education (ABE) on June 4. As chair of the Budget Commission, please know, we worked tirelessly with the administration to ensure we established budget parameters and a calendar that would produce positive outcomes for all students.
We met with the Fulton County tax assessor, as a commission, and APS’s administration had numerous conversations with the appraisers office (as we do each year during the budget process) to gain insight into the digest for our planning purposes.
During the nine months, we had nine commission meetings and worked collaboratively with the Atlanta legislative delegation to address the homestead exemption and our senior population. Because of this collaboration, Senate Bill 485 will be on the ballot in November, which proposes an increase to the homestead exemption from $30,000 to $50,000. If passed, it will result in a reduction of approximately $414 per year for three years from each property tax bill. The impact on APS is $25 million per year or $75 million over the life of the bill.
We can plan for this reduction because we worked directly with the bills’ author so that results were workable by the district and meaningful for taxpayers, using an approved digest. We looked at several different proposed bills; some however, relied on the 2016/2017 digest. We cannot support a proposal that we know uses numbers that have not been approved by the Georgia Department of Revenue.
We established the budget with a conservative increase that would allow us to fund the parameters that were established at the onset. We also will continue to pay our mandatory costs that are increasing each year. They include $66.5 million for teacher retirement, $118 million for Charter Schools commitments, $55 million for pension liability that we inherited from the city of Atlanta and $55 million for health benefits. These costs added to our staff salaries of $346 million make up 78 percent of our General Fund.
We received the digest on June 15, as did officials of the city and Fulton County governments. The increase in the digest was 32 percent over last year.
As a taxpayer, it is important to know that while included in total digest numbers, APS does not receive tax dollars from the Tax Allocation Districts (TAD) and that growth far outpaced residential value growth. On average that growth was 44.25 percent, or over $18 million. That money goes back into the TAD. (That is a conversation for another day.)
We also do not know how the appeal process will end up. We were advised and assumed 7 percent of homeowners will appeal and with those billed at 85 percent, the anticipated loss is $20 million.
The total digest came in at $39.6 million over the school board’s adopted 2019 budget. The administration recommended at 1 mill rollback to the school board, from 21.74 mills to 20.74 mills. This will put $33.4 million back into the hands of taxpayers. Should there be more than the assumed 7 percent appeals, the district will be able to absorb this without having to layoff teachers or cut programs for children.
I repeatedly hear that “APS spends more per pupil than surrounding districts.” The truth is, as an urban district with a 24 percent poverty rate and 75.7 percent of students on free and reduced lunch, and a district that is recovering from the largest cheating scandal in U.S. history, we do. Since our current superintendent joined APS, we have cut the central office costs from 6.4 percent to 4.6 percent, are addressing the inequities across the district, and have pushed more dollars to the school site for each school to determine what is best for their students.
Through this work, we as a board are proving that we are good stewards of your tax dollars, by building strong students, building strong schools, and building strong communities.
Nancy Meister represents north Atlanta on the Atlanta Board of Education.