Sales tax fight drawing to close; property taxes may be going up - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Sales tax fight drawing to close; property taxes may be going up

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Chatham County's once-a-decade battle over sales tax dollars is drawing to a close.

City and county governments on Wednesday submitted to Superior Court their proposals for divvying up Local Option Sales Tax funds.

Savannah has been getting the lion's share of those tax dollars over the past decade – more than 67 percent. Chatham County gets about 18 percent.

But county government has one massive expense coming up – operation of the expanded Chatham County Detention Center. That's expected to cost nearly $53 million in Fiscal Year 2013. And the cost goes up after that.

Savannah leaders think that's part of the reason the county is playing hardball this year.

"I think it has to do with the jail, and they feel like when they say what other counties are getting, and they feel like they're not getting their fair share," said District 4 City Councilwoman Mary Ellen Sprague.

Brian Johnson, Garden City's city manager, said the negotiations have been a delicate dance.

"There was a lot of effort put into trying to come up with a fair distribution," he said. "But at the end of the day, everybody's got to look out for themselves, and it makes the Machiavellian aspects come out."

The sales tax is just a penny on the dollar. But those pennies add up – to nearly a quarter of the city of Savannah's budget.

A judge will decide April 1 how the money is split. But today, Sprague said no matter what happens with the negotiations, Savannah's property taxes probably are going up. And that's because of slow growth. Savannah's population increased slightly between the 2000 and 2010 Census – nearly 4 percent. But nothing like the 197 percent population boom Pooler saw, or the 64 percent Port Wentworth grew. And how much of the tax money each town gets depends, in part, on how many of the county's residents live inside its city limits.

Sprague expects taxes will go up about 1 mil. Right now, the owner of a $150,000 home -- with the standard exemption -- pays $600 a year in taxes. If taxes go up a mil, that homeowner would pay $648 annually..

Under state law, only Chatham's largest city, Savannah, and Chatham County have to sign off on the property tax agreement. But there's strength in numbers, and smaller cities have teamed up with Savannah in the fight over how the money is divided. Chatham County tried to woo the smaller towns away from the city of Savannah, but failed. Johnson said he just didn't like the county's chances of winning the court fight.

"It was akin to Garden City being a small country with two larger countries going to war," he said. "They haven't started yet, but you have to choose wisely because to the victor go the spoils."

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