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Bulloch likely to see tax increase next year

    Bulloch County citizens will see an increase in taxes next year if Bulloch County Commissioners accept a recommendation by County Manager Tom Couch.
    It is a necessary move, Couch told commissioners Tuesday evening. The only other way to balance the county's budget would be drastic layoffs and elimination of services Bulloch County citizens have come to expect.
    "There is nothing more dreadful ... than making a recommendation as I'm about to do," he said as a preface to his proposal.
    Although unpopular with many, Couch told commissioners raising property  taxes is the only feasible way to balance the budget.  The tax increase, which Couch recommended rise from 8.63 mills to 10.38 mills, follows a recent significant increase in property values.
    If the proposed 10.38 millage rate is approved, it would mean an increase of $80 per year in county taxes for property with an assessed value of $100,000 and $160 per year for property assessed at $200,000.
    Couch also submitted a tentative budget for commissioners to review. If approved, the budget will be available for public review, and a public hearing on the budget is slated for June 19, he said.
    "As you know, the general fund of Bulloch County has had a structural budget deficit for at least seven years," he told commissioners during Tuesday's county commission meeting. "We are no longer in a financial position to use reserves as a stop gap measure to annual deficits. Bulloch County's financial operating position is in jeopardy.
    "By the close of this current fiscal year, the county's general fund reserve balance is projected to be $2,653,620, or 9.3 percent of current expenditures," he said. The ideal is 25 percent."
    This is after using half of last year's remaining fund reserve of over $5 million to balance the fiscal year 2007 budget, he said.
    The proposed fiscal year 2008 budget includes a "reserve stabilization plan" to help build the fund balance back up, which will take five years, he said. "The failure to fund this plan will have serious negative consequences for county finances."
    The fund balance has declined since 2001, when it was $9 million.
    The primary revenue source for the proposed budget is property taxes, he said.
    What many view as a double hit - increasing the millage rate paired with the rise in property values - is necessary to get the county back in the black, he said.
    "Despite higher property reassessments, without an increase in the ad valorem tax rate (millage rate), a general fund budget deficit of $3.2 million is projected to occur."
    Couch told commissioners the proposed budget will "maintain and slightly improve the existing level of service consistent with the growth of the community, ensuring efficient performance."
    He also said the proposed budget would "continue the fulfillment of obligations to Bulloch County's voters with regard to successful implementation of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) projects," such as the agriculture center on Langston Chapel Road, Bulloch County's Jail expansion and other improvements and additions.
    The proposed budget would also "begin to rebuild the county's declining financial operating position," he said.
    Couch advocated "developing new revenue sources as an alternative to future property tax increases" and has said he hopes to focus on economic growth.
    Over the past few years, the county has cut back severely in attempts to avoid increasing taxes, he said.  But with increased costs, including the sharp rise in gasoline prices, paired with unfunded mandates, the tax increase is essential.
    Two examples of unfunded mandates the county faces are additional courthouse security — which costs the county $180,000; and the transition from using gas chambers to injection for euthanasia at the Statesboro-Bulloch County Animal Shelter, which is projected to cost $80,000, he said.
    "You don't have to be an elected official to understand the brutal political backlash of raising property taxes," he said. " ... I believe we can demonstrate that a tax increase is critical to providing the citizens with the services they demand. You will never get overwhelming support for a tax increase, but we can manage the criticism by showing how we have done everything we can to keep the citizens' costs low. Remember, our job of strategic cost reduction is never done."
    After the June 19 public hearing, and a possible workshop beforehand, commissioners are expected to adopt the budget June 26.

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