By DOUG NURSE www.ajc.com
Is it possible to be wealthy and poor at the same time? It's a paradox that city leaders in Milton know something about. The average house on the market in the city costs about $800,000, and the median household income is near the top in the state, but the city is laboring to pay for its basic needs.
Residential property taxes aren't enough to pay bills, Milton City Manager Billy Beckett says.
City leaders say they have only a fraction of the funds needed to maintain roads and lack money for parkland and other priorities. They say the city can't afford to build its own city hall.
"We face short- and long-term challenges," said City Manager Billy Beckett. "We have a lot of needs. I've had requests for sidewalks, but there's no money. I've had calls asking for intersection improvements, traffic signalization. None of that is cheap."
It's a harsh reality for a city built on promises of offering better services and limited taxes.
City Councilman Alan Tart said residents will have to make choices about what services they want, at what level, vs. whether they prefer to keep their taxes low."There's no such thing as a free lunch," Tart said. "I'll do whatever the citizens want. But we can't spend more than we receive. Preliminary results of a survey show people want better services than they received from Fulton County, better infrastructure than they received from Fulton County, more attention than they received from Fulton County. But if you ask them if they're willing to pay more taxes, most said, 'No'."
One of the most pressing issues involves roads.Milton has 175 miles of city-owned roads but only enough money to maintain five miles a year. Dan Drake, the city public works director, is conducting an analysis of Milton's roads, but he said he already knows, more or less, what he'll find."We don't have adequate allocations to roads just for pure maintenance," he said. "We may have to lower our standards. That would mean more cracks, a bumpier ride, alligator cracking, faded pavement."
The city has set aside $900,000 this year for road upkeep. To resurface all of its roads within the standard seven-year period, the city would need about $2 million to $3 million a year. The city has dozens of bridges; one that almost failed will cost about $200,000 to $300,000 to fix.
The city has an annual budget of about $17.7 million.
In addition to road maintenance, the city has set a priority for more parks. It currently has three, including one undeveloped. It has drafted a plan for a 48.6-mile trail system for bicyclists, hikers and equestrians — but no money to make it happen.
"Everyone is anxious to do something about parks," Beckett said. "But when you have parks, you have to have money to run them and maintain them. We have to meet some fundamental challenges first."
The city also faces ongoing costs from its new Police Department, Fire Department and Municipal Court. For example, Beckett said, Milton encompasses 23,000 acres, and the city needs a tanker truck to fight fires in remote areas. The Police Department needs more manpower to combat speeding, which Beckett said is a big problem in Milton.
Milton has limited options to increase revenue.
One possibility is impact fees, paid by developers to cover the infrastructure costs required to serve their projects. But legally those are limited to the area of the project and can only be used for specified city services.
Milton's tax rate is already at the statutory maximum of $4.731 per $1,000 of taxable valuation.
Before incorporating into a city, local residents worried that a new government would bring another level of taxation. To quell those fears, the legislation founding the city capped the millage unless voters approve an increase.
"I don't see anyone supporting a tax increase in this political climate," Beckett said.
The city might see more revenue because of new property assessments by Fulton County. Even so, Beckett said, despite the high value of the homes in the city, residential property taxes aren't enough to pay bills.
Only a small portion of the city is commercial property, which hurts the revenue base.
William Hudnut, senior resident fellow of the Urban Land Institute, said typically commercial development brings in more in taxes than it requires in services. A largely residential city will generally see a disproportionate share of the taxes fall on homeowners, he said.
But Milton residents treasure the semi-agrarian nature of the area, with its horse farms, estate properties and tree-lined lanes. They fear letting in commercial property will destroy the unique charm of Milton.
That has led the City Council to oppose expansion of sewer systems, which means projects along commercial corridors have to use valuable land for septic tanks. The City Council has also capped commercial buildings at only two stories and demanded developers spare more trees than other cities do.
The result is perhaps a more beautiful area, but a poorer city that serves a community expecting and demanding more services than it used to get from Fulton County. The city this year is receiving about $5 million from Fulton County in taxes paid before the city incorporated, and that will help keep the budget crunch at bay. Plus in 2008, the city will start collecting $900,000 in insurance-related taxes.
And Beckett is looking for places to make city operations more efficient. "It's doable," Beckett said. "I don't want to see the character of the community change any more than they do. But we need to be realistic. We need a practical approach to provide services this community needs."