To avoid holding tax increase hearings, the Bulloch County Board of Education is considering a 1/4-mill rollback in the school system’s share of the property tax millage rate.
But the rollback would mean giving up between $400,000 and $500,000 in potential revenue, so board members are also thinking about that in relation to the ongoing discussion of school safety measures and how to fund them.
Under a Georgia law called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, actively increasing the millage rate is not the only thing that can trigger the hearing requirement. If boards with taxing authority take advantage of inflationary growth in property assessments to boost their funding, a tax increase notice must be published and three hearings held where taxpayers can ask questions.
Last fiscal year’s Bulloch County school tax rate was 9.685 mills. The expected rollback rate to avoid triggering hearings would be 9.427, school system Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown told the board last Thursday evening.
“Then it comes to where the board has to make that decision,” he said. “If we do not roll back the millage rate, then basically we’ll be advertising to the public that we’ll be having a tax increase, and although we would not be having a millage rate increase, the cost of some of their properties have increased because of being reassessed.”
The assessments are the done by the Bulloch County Board of Tax Assessors staff, not the school board.
In fiscal year 2017, for which taxes were billed in 2016, the school tax rate was 9.804 mills, and for two years before that it was 9.848 mills. Back in fiscal year 2014, the rate was 9.950 mills, as Brown showed with a chart projected on a screen.
“The point of that is to be able to see what our millage rate was over five years and how the board has decided to lower the millage rate most years for the past five years,” he said.
Property taxes provide about $18 million for the school system’s $95 million general fund budget. The Local Option Sales Tax is another major local source, but the state provides the majority of the schools’ funding.
A mill is 1/1,000th the value of property as assessed for taxes, and in Georgia most property is assessed at 40 percent of its market value. So, if looked at as a decrease, the 0.258-mill rollback would cut $10.32 from the potential tax on a home or land with a $100,000 market value. Alternatively, it would avoid about a 2.7 percent increase in the overall school tax rate on existing property.
But either way, not everyone would not see, or avoid, the same amount of increase.
Brown also showed a graph with trend lines for five years of budgeted and actually collected taxes, as well as digest values. Most years, the school system has ended up collecting more tax than first projected, so the current budgeting should still be safe, he said.
Administrators need an answer from the board at the next meeting, July 26, so that if there is not a rollback decision the hearings can be advertised and held before the Aug. 9 meeting.
“Given the information we have and given our financial condition, it’s going to be my recommendation to you that we roll back …,” Superintendent Charles Wilson told the board. “We believe that we’ll collect more than what the digest shows, plus with what we’ve budgeted if we’re wrong and it comes in low, we’re still going to be OK financially.”
School safety tie-in
Earlier in the meeting board Chairman Mike Sparks announced that board members had copies of a proposed job description for a school safety director. What Sparks and Wilson refer to as the “ad hoc committee” made of the two of them and District 3 board member Stuart Tedders developed it.
The hiring of a safety director, employing more school resource officers in cooperation with local law enforcement agencies and making changes to buildings are all steps under consideration for better protecting schools after last school year’s plague of campus shootings around the nation.
District 4 member Steve Hein asked what keeping the millage rate the same instead of rolling it back would mean in in relation to the board’s priorities for school safety.
“I really think it comes down to a theme that we’ve said many times about voting our values, and in this case it doesn’t require you to vote,” he said. “It simply says do this and we get ahead of it, if it would make a significant dent toward achieving that goal.”
Brown answered with the rough estimate of “between $400,000 and $500,000.”
Wilson noted that a vote will be required to set the millage and also acknowledged this rollback would cost more than others in recent years. Projected revenue sacrifices of $100,000 or $200,000 have been typical.
But Wilson said he tends to recommend against taking increases that “happen incrementally,” preferring to seek a significant millage rate hike infrequently, after a need has been stated first. He said he thinks taxpayers would understand that better.
However, Hein said that, since board members have said they want to act quickly on school safety, he doesn’t want to see it “kicked too far down the road.”
“It is my commitment to you, all of you, that whatever priorities we establish with school safety, the hiring of a school safety director, providing whatever resources are necessary as well training opportunities, I am going to recommend those to you anyway, even if it means spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars over what was budgeted,” Wilson said.
The school system is in good enough financial condition to absorb that and then, if necessary, propose a tax increase the next year, he said.
But Wilson said he wanted to hear by the next meeting from any board members who prefer to keep the millage rate the same instead of granting a rollback.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.