Baldwin residents voice concerns over proposed millage rate hike

Debbie Satterfield addresses the Baldwin City Council during the budget public hearing Tuesday evening, June 4, 2024. (Jerry Neace/NowHabersham.com)

A handful of Baldwin residents attended the FY 2025 budget public hearing this week and spoke out against the proposed budget that includes a millage rate increase.

The general fund budget presented to the City Council is a balanced budget but includes an approximate millage rate increase of 1.11 mils. The increased millage rate will add approximately $200,000 to the general fund budget.

Last year, the City Council voted to roll back the millage rate for property owners inside the city. The proposed millage rate would increase Habersham County resident’s property taxes by 13.08% from 8.481 mils to 9.591 mils and increase Banks County resident’s property taxes by 41.7% from 2.662 mils to 3.772 mils.

Public speaks

Randy Lewallen spoke against the increase during the public hearing on Tuesday, June 4. He asked if the city could increase the sales tax instead of increasing the millage rate. “It’s a little unfair to older, 65 and older, homeowners in Baldwin,” he said. He added that there were a few older homeowners on his street that only had one income.

Mayor Stephanie Almagno asked if he had the homestead exemptions that were available. He replied that he did not. Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Emily Woodmaster explained to Lewallen what exemptions were available to residents in the city.

Council member Alice Venter told Lewallen, “Definitely go and file for your homestead exemptions. You deserve every exemption you qualify for.”

Lewallen revisited the idea of increasing sales taxes. Venter told him that the city doesn’t have control over that. The county does and it has to be voted on by the citizens in a referendum.

Debbie Satterfield, a lifetime resident of Baldwin, spoke against the tax increase. “I’m concerned about more taxes, more, more, more to the property owners.” She explained that she was over 65 and paid not only city taxes but county taxes as well.

The council did not address her concern.

CAO salary

Baldwin resident Jo McClendon spoke against the proposed CAO salary increase.

“I just don’t understand,” she said. “I appreciate all that Miss Woodmaster does. I understand that she has a big job, but I just don’t understand the increase of 10% then 2.5%. I could understand something smaller, but that’s a huge increase.”

McClendon added, “Our budget can’t handle it.” She expressed to the council that she saw all of the things that were pulled from the budget to bring forward a budget that would work. “But, I think that needs more consideration,” she said.

In 2023, the Baldwin City Council increased Woodmaster’s salary from $65,000 to $104,000. In addition to the $39,000 pay raise, the council also approved a $12,283 one-time supplement to cover the difference between her contracts while they were being negotiated.

During a meeting on May 28, councilmember Satterfield questioned this year’s proposed raise, comparing Woodmaster’s salary to other CAOs in the county. McClendon thanked him for doing that. “I appreciate that he did his diligence and went out and looked and said let’s compare.”

Baldwin Mayor Stephanie Almagno addresses citizens during Tuesday’s work session. (Jerry Neace/NowHabersham.com)

Mayor Almagno addressed McClendon’s concerns, explaining that over the last five years, the council has been working to improve the budget and increase employees’ salaries to what it actually costs to provide the services.

“We have been trying to make a budget that actually represents what it costs to run the city,” she said.

She explained that the city had been adjusting salaries over the years and did a salary study for city hall employees. “This is the last piece in the salary. This is the last position that needed tweaking,” Almagno said.

Almagno explained that she and the council had discussed the salary going forward.

“We feel like this is it. We’re bringing that particular salary up to where it should be at market value. We don’t see major increases coming down the road,” she told McClendon.

She also told McClendon that the 2.5% increase was a cost of living adjustment that was being applied across the board for all employees and per the CAO employment contract, she is entitled to that increase.

Woodmaster’s proposed salary would increase from $104,000 to $123,410. This includes the proposed 10% increase, the paid time off cash equivalent of $6,000, and the 2.5% cost of living adjustment that all city employees will receive.

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CAO salary support, promise made

After the public hearing concluded, Councilmember Maarten Venter expressed his support for the CAO increase prior to leaving for another commitment. He explained to the audience that should the current CAO accept another position elsewhere or the position becomes vacant, the current compensation is below market value and the city would have a difficult time filling that position.

“If we are below market value on that position as far as compensation is concerned, we will not be able to hire anybody to replace her. That is my reasoning behind voting for this increase,” he said.

He also expressed his opposition to the millage rate increase. “I made a promise that I will not vote for another increase in the millage rate and I stand by that promise. I will not vote for another rate increase,” Venter said.

Venter made a promise two years ago when the city council raised the millage rate then that he would not vote to raise it again.

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