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County manager: Tax hike likely

Severe cuts to services are only alternative, Couch says

    After warning for several years Bulloch County's revenue wasn't keeping pace with its growth, County Manager Tom Couch believes a tax increase for the upcoming fiscal year is the only way to deliver services residents expect.
      At a County Commission work session Monday and an interview Tuesday, Couch discussed the county's financial situation and said he sees no alternative to a millage rate increase unless major services are discontinued.
    "If the county relies on currently projected revenue, it will leave a deficit," he said. "We have relied on our 'rainy day' fund to make up the deficit the past few years, but that fund is about out."
    Couch said Bulloch's current tax rate of 8.63 mills (See example in chart) still would leave about a $3 million deficit even factoring in the recent 21 percent average increase in valuations Bulloch property owners just received notification of in the mail. Bulloch County, which has one of the lowest property tax rates in Georgia, last raised its millage rate in 2002. Couch said he was not sure how much of an increase he may recommend.  
    "If the county relies on currently projected revenue, it will leave a deficit," he said.
    Couch expects to submit a tentative budget June 5 for commissioners to review. A public hearing will follow on date to be announced later, where citizens can review the budget and make comments before it is submitted for approval.
    Is there an alternative to a tax increase? Yes, Couch said. But it isn't one citizens would like, and would severely damage the quality of life to which Bulloch County citizens have grown accustomed, said Bulloch County Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil.
    "There may have been a lack of efficiency in county government in the past," Couch said. "While we are not 100 percent, I can assure residents we have one of the most efficient county governments in the state. We have cut the fat"
    To operate without a millage rate increase, Couch said the county would have to eliminate recreation department programs, the animal control department and code enforcement. Also, road improvement services would be cut, eliminating road maintenance. Solid waste services would be cut and citizens would have to pay private companies instead of taking their refuse to the trash transfer and recycling centers, Couch said.
    Like everything else, the cost of running the county has risen, said Commissioner Roy Thompson. (See comparison chart.)
    Thompson, who owns Statesboro Floor Covering, said: "As a businessman, the cost of doing business has gone up significanlt over the past few years. Providing government services is no different."
    "Bulloch County is growing at 1,500 people a year," Couch said. But revenues are not keeping up with the expenses. "I don't think we have an expenditure problem as much as we have a revenue problem."
    Recent changes in valuations of property already have drawn complaints about higher taxes, and Nevil and Thompson know that citizens won't like seeing a millage increase. But increased costs and sluggish revenues have pushed commissioners to where they will strongly consider a millage rate increase.

@Subhead:Fund balance gone
@Bodycopy:    For six of the past 11 years, Bulloch County has dipped into the "rainy day account," or fund balance, to avoid raising taxes and stay in the black, Couch said.
    Drastic measures were taken last year to cut back, including slashing the recreation department's budget by $200,000.
    But cutting back can only go so far, and with increasing needs and expense, revenues must go up, and the only way to do so looks like a tax increase, he said.
    The new jail is a major expense but will eliminate costs of housing inmates elsewhere and the cost of transporting inmates to court, since the jail will include a courtroom when the expansion is completed.
    In 2004 the county allocated nothing to courthouse security, but after the 2005 shootings ina an Atlanta courtroom, the county will spend about $175,000 this year for security. Also, recent mandated changes to the euthanasia methods at the Statesboro-Bulloch County Animal Shelter will increase costs by $70,000 to accommodate euthanasia by injection, he said.
    "We've been chasing our tail (trying to keep up with expenses) since I got here," he said.
    Building inspection costs have risen because Bulloch County is now listed as being in the hurricane zone and the inspector's work load has increased. The district attorney's office needs more money, and road construction and maintenance costs have risen drastically due to gasoline costs, he said.
    Couch said he has about exhausted ways to maintain services without increasing revenue.
    "This year we can borrow internally (from another county fund) until property  taxes come in," he said. But the loan must be repaid, and that money must come from revenues.
    
@Subhead:Commissioners speak
@Bodycopy:    Commissioners know raising taxes will not be a popular move, but they also know there is no way to avoid it unless critical services are cut.
    "Just like in my business, it takes more money to run it than the year before," Thompson said. "We don't have (enough) revenues coming in. We have a lot of expenditures."
    Thompson said there has been no tax increase since 2002, and that the county has been "operating on a shoestring budget and using the fund balance.
    "Costs are escalating and we have no control over that," he said.
    Nevil argued cutting services would cost residents in the long run.
    Paying private companies to pick up garbage would cost a citizen far more than what they may pay in a tax increase, he said.  And if fire services were cut back, citizens' " ISO ratings would be higher ... and (insurance) premiums would far exceed the tax increase."
    If animal control were eliminated, the county would be overrun with stray animals, and when people had problems with animals, they would call the Bulloch County Sheriff's Department. That would overtax an already overextended department and "what would they do with the dogs and cats?
    "I don't know what the simple solution is," Nevil said., "We get demands for services- bombarded with calls from people wanting more and more."
    "Our backs are against the wall," Thompson said.
    Couch agreed. "Our only other option is to lay people off."
    And in a situation where additional positions are critical if services are maintained on a current level, that isn't an option either, he said.
    To date, the county expects to hire a chief financial officer to replace the county clerk, Evelyn Wilson, who will be leaving this year, he said. The county will also need to hire a kitchen manager to operate the kitchen shared with the jail and Bulloch County Correctional Institute; another probation officer, an additional animal shelter attendant, a boom axe operator for the road maintenance department and an additional sheriff's investigator, he said.
    A third humane enforcement officer will be added as well, but will be funded by the City of Statesboro in an agreement where the humane enforcement team will also handle calls within the city limits.
    "My conscience is clear," Nevil said. "It (raising taxes) is a necessary evil ... and I'm a taxpayer, too. It gets in my pocket, too. It hurts, and I know exactly where (citizen's complaints) are coming from. There's nothing left. We have cut and we have asked ... as much as I hate to accept it, taxes are going to have to go up .."

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