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Our Views - To maintain our quality of life, a tax increase is necessary

    It is almost certain Bulloch County commissioners will vote to raise our taxes Tuesday. It is not something they want to do, but it seems most have decided it is something they must do. We, too, have come to the same conclusion: We must pay more to maintain the quality of life we have built and cherish.

We believe commissioners should approve County Manager Tom Couch’s recommendation to increase Bulloch’s millage rate by 1.75 mils – boosting the rate from 8.63 to 10.38 mils. For someone whose home or property is valued at $200,000, that translates to about $140 more per year in county taxes. Ouch.

It will be Bulloch’s first millage increase since a .25 rise in 2002. Can you think of another business that hasn’t raised prices in five years and 1.) is still in business; or 2.) has sustained a high quality of service? Obviously, Bulloch County still is in business, but it has mostly maintained services by raiding a reserve fund to pay its bills, instead of drastically cutting services/employees or raising taxes.

Five years ago, Bulloch’s reserve fund stood at more than $5 million. It is now less than $1 million and Couch fears an unforeseen financial crisis could cripple county finances. Three years ago, Couch raised concerns prior to commissioners approving the budget that the county was using reserve funds to balance its budget. Last year he warned the reserves could not fill in the gaps much longer and additional revenue had to be considered.

In the meantime, Couch and county officials looked for ways to make county government more efficient. They cut the parks and recreation department by $200,000; employees given use of county vehicles were reduced from well more than a dozen to less than five; non-essential services also were reduced. Couch doesn’t claim 100 percent efficiency nor complete elimination of questionable spending. He says he is confident the county carefully monitors each taxpayer dollar and we believe him.

When looking at some of the factors contributing to the likely millage increase, clearly the higher cost of delivering county services is the primary reason. Commissioner Roy Thompson, who owns Statesboro Floor Covering, said: “As a businessman, the cost of doing business has gone up significantly over the past few years. Providing government services is no different.”

Some examples:

In 2004, group insurance cost the county $1 million; in 2007, $1.36 million.

In 2004, gasoline cost the county $441,567; in 2007, $742,150. (And that’s with fewer vehicles.)

In 2004, inmate housing cost the county $325,000; in 2007, $1.25 million.

Also, there are expenses today that could not have been anticipated. Prior to the Atlanta courthouse shootings in 2005, Bulloch spent nothing on courthouse security. More than $180,000 is budgeted for the coming fiscal year. Also, the state ruled Bulloch must change its method of euthanasia at the animal shelter from gas to injection, which means an additional $70,000 of expense.

While Bulloch County has experienced steady growth during the past few years, it has been almost exclusively residential. Any tax base benefits most from growth in industry and growth in that area has slowed in Bulloch. Providing county services to residents simply costs more than tax revenue can keep up with.

So what are some alternatives to a tax increase? It’s pretty short list – fire employees, cut services, close facilities and reduce maintenance of roads and all county assets.

We have built a county with the best park facilities in the region. Mill Creek Regional Park is the finest facility of its kind for a county our size in the entire state. The Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department offers more programs for youngsters on up to seniors at a lower cost than any comparable rec department in Georgia. We do not want to see Mill Creek overgrown with weeds, non-functioning lights and disgusting restrooms. We want every child to have the opportunity to participate in a youth sports program.

We must have the recycling and trash transfer stations open around the county and at the hours that are convenient for most residents. We must maintain our current roads, including dirt ones, and continue a regular program of paving dirt roads. We must operate a humane animal shelter.

With no disrespect to surrounding communities, Bulloch offers the highest quality of life in the region. We believe most county residents are willing, if not happy, to pay more now to keep our quality of life at a high level. And even with the increased millage rate, Bulloch’s overall rate when including school and fire taxes is the lowest in the region at about 21 mils.

Citizens, however, do have good reason to complain about the size of the tax hit they must absorb all at once. When you factor in the increase in valuations of homes just completed and a roll back in millage without a tax increase, the average Bulloch property owner will see a 44-percent jump in county taxes in one year. Again, we believe the tax increase is necessary, but county commissioners should have bitten the political bullet years ago when Couch first raised revenue concerns and raised the millage rate a little at a time.

We also believe the county would benefit from the additional tax revenue created by package liquor sales. Currently, there are liquor stores on Bulloch’s county lines with Candler, Emanuel, Evans and Bryan counties. Bulloch residents and visitors leave millions of tax dollars in those counties every year buying liquor. Selling liquor here would not solve all revenue issues, but, nonetheless, Bulloch would reap a huge tax windfall. We believe any moral issue is moot because we sell alcohol here already, just not in the form of package liquor sales. But that’s another concern for another day.

Bulloch County Commission Chairman Garret Nevil said: “(Raising taxes) is a necessary evil … as much as I hate to accept it, taxes are going to have to go up.”

We believe Couch and our county commissioners have done their homework. We believe they have carefully considered the necessary expenses of each department. We believe our quality of life will decline without raising taxes.

Tuesday, Bulloch County commissioners almost assuredly will raise our taxes. It is the right thing to do. Indeed, it is the only thing to do.

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