The Bulloch County Board of Education has announced a fresh set of three public hearings on a proposed 16% increase in the school system portion of property taxes, after two citizens attempted to file a legal challenge to the validity of the first set of hearings.
That challenge did not immediately succeed, but the citizens’ complaint pointed out that none of the board members actually attended the previous hearings.
“Although the Board of Education followed legal and regulatory protocol for public hearings related to effectively increasing its 2023 millage rate, the Board values the feedback it received about its attendance at public hearings,” Hayley Greene, Bulloch County Schools public relations director, stated in a Friday evening media release. “Therefore, it has delayed its vote and will repeat the public hearing process prior to a final vote on September 8.”
The additional hearings are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 31, at 12 noon and for Thursday, Sept. 7, at 9 a.m. and again that same day at 6 p.m. As before, the hearings will be held in the board’s central office meeting room at 150 Williams Road.
Staff for the Board of Education previously hosted hearings Aug. 10 at noon and Aug. 17 at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. intended to meet the requirements of a Georgia law known as the Property Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights. The board was scheduled to vote to set its millage rate during a called meeting at noon Friday, Aug. 18. That morning, county residents Edward Lawton Sack and Cassandra Marie Mikell filed a request in Bulloch County Superior Court for an injunction blocking the board from voting on the millage rate.
Citing procedural errors in the citizens’ filing, Judge Lovett Bennett Jr. denied the request but did so “without prejudice,” meaning that the court did not rule out hearing a similar or refiled claim.
In their petition for injunctive and declaratory relief, Sack and Mikell referred to the specific Georgia law popularly known as the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, or TABOR, in effect since Jan. 1, 2000.
“We argue that the requirements, intent, and spirit of TABOR laws and the terms and provisions thereof for public hearings were not met and thus invalid because there was not a single member of the Board of Education of the Bulloch County Schools, the recommending authority or levying authority, present at any of the so-called three TABOR hearings held by the Board of Education of the Bulloch County Schools,” the written filing stated, noting the dates and times of the previous hearings.
Further stating that the members thus were not “present to hear from the public citizens who duly elected” them, the plaintiffs alleged that “irreparable harm” would have been done if board members had voted on the tax increase last Friday.
Bennett, in his order denying the request for an injunction, noted that Mikell and Sack’s petition was “unsigned, unverified and has no accompanying affidavit.” As such it fell short, he said, of two specific state laws he cited. These set out requirements for signed pleadings and the process for seeking injunctions.
Further, the petition did not set out what efforts had been made to give notice to the defendant, the judge noted.
“Petitioners have sought extreme relief without satisfying procedural requirements,” Bennett stated. “For the foregoing reasons, the Court is obliged to dismiss the Petition without prejudice.”
During Friday’s noon called meeting, Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson recommended holding an “executive,” or closed, session with legal counsel to make board members aware of the legal filing, Greene acknowledged in her media release.
“However, this was not the basis of the Board’s decision to host a second series of public hearings, nor did the Superior Court judge issue the injunction,” Greene wrote.
Immediately after the board returned to open session early Friday afternoon, Vice Chair Elizabeth Williams, the member from District 2, announced that the board was tabling its decision on the millage rate and would repeat the hearing process in response to “community feedback.”
What Wilson has actually proposed is a fractional increase, 0.242 mill, in the rate of county property taxes used for funding the schools. That increase alone, from a school tax rate of 8.236 mills last year to 8.478 mills, is a 2.9% rate increase.
But when compounded with the inflation in real estate values as determined by the county tax assessors, the resulting proposed increase in property tax for school maintenance and operations is 16.07% on average. So that is the percentage stated in the formal notices required under the Property Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights.
To have avoided announcing a property tax increase, the school board would have had to roll its rate back to 7.304 mills to compensate for inflation in assessments. So the notices refer to an increase of “1.174 mills,” the difference between the rollback rate and the newly proposed rate.
Earlier this summer Wilson told the board he wanted to recommend a rollback.
But the Board of Education must maintain an “effective” millage rate of 14 mills to qualify for an annual state equalization grant. Because Bulloch County already rolls back its school millage by having the county’s original 1% Local Option Sales Tax permanently assigned to the schools, the “effective” rate is a combination of the actual property tax millage and the sales tax revenue stated as a millage.
The state equalization grant is worth more than $7.4 million to the school system, and 8.478 mills, not the rollback rate, is the level of property tax millage needed to bring the effective rate to 14 mills and keep the grant, Wilson said in an earlier release and interview.
In past years staff members for local elected boards held tax increase hearings with few of the elected officials actually present and noted that a quorum is not required. But this year millage increases also proposed by the Bulloch County commissioners’ staff and the city of Statesboro on top of the assessment increases have drawn more attention to the hearings.