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Bulloch BOE approves tax rate hike after expressing reluctance
Faced dilemma: status quo or rollback could have cost county schools $7.4M state funds
Bulloch BOE approves tax rate hike
Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson, center, talks about the school maintenance and operations millage rate increase while seated between Board of Education members Glennera Martin, left, who voted against it, and Chair Glenn Womack, right, who supported it. (AL HACKLE/staff)

The Bulloch County Board of Education – after a second round of tax increase hearings, with most members attending all three hearings this time – met at noon Friday and voted 7-1 to adopt a property tax rate for school maintenance and operations of 8.478 mills, up from last year’s 8.236 mills.

That alone would be 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% for taxable properties on average. So that was the percentage stated in the formal notices school system officials posted to comply with the Georgia law known as the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights. The notices referred to a 1.174-mill increase, the difference between the new rate and a rollback rate of 7.304 mills that would have been needed to avoid announcing a tax increase.

“Ten-plus years – the board’s been here long before me – we either rolled it back, reduced it, you don’t hear nothing, you don’t even get a pat on the back,” BOE Chair Glenn Womack said to the other members. “But now you’re having to make a tough decision and just a very small minority wants to say, you know, you’re doing the worst thing you can possibly do. … But we deal with the most passionate things you can ever deal with, people’s pocketbooks and people’s children.”

Womack, also the District 1 member, said he would vote in  favor  of the local increase to  avoid a larger reduction in state funding – the result of a technical, legal dilemma explained throughout the hearings – and potential cuts in programs for children.

As seen during the budgeting process, the Board of Education’s property tax increase wasn’t necessary from a local cash-on-hand perspective. After receiving millions of dollars in special COVID pandemic-period federal money, the school district is following a five-year plan to spend down a large balance in its general fund.

But according to Superintendent Charles Wilson and Business Services Director Alison Boatright, the Bulloch County Schools faced a dilemma between the Georgia law that results in the rollback rate and a different law that governs state equalization funding to counties. The school district receives a majority of its operating funds from the state, and an annual equalization grant is part of that.

“The unfortunate irony in all of this is that because we’ve kept school property taxes so low, we have now run up against the 14-mill floor required to continue qualifying for state equalization grant funding,” Wilson said in a media release issued after Friday’s vote.

Under the relevant law, each school district must maintain an “effective” millage rate of 14 mills to qualify for equalization funding.

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 equalization funding is worth more than $7.4 million to the school system, and 8.478 mills, not the rollback rate, was the level of property tax millage needed to bring the effective rate to 14 mills.

“We did not budget for the increased collections…, the $3.4 million that would come from this millage rate discussion; we’ve not really budgeted for that,” Wilson said during the board’s meeting Friday. “What we had budgeted for was equalization funding coming from the state that is currently $7.4 million.”


‘Unprecedented’ cuts

District 3 board member Dr. Stuart Tedders had asked what the impact would be of reducing the millage and losing that funding.

“If we lose $7.4 million a year and don’t want to increase taxes, which is understandable, if that becomes fiscal policy of this board, we’re going to have to make unprecedented adjustments, and what I mean by that is cuts to expenditures,” Wilson said.

Because salaries and other personnel costs make up about 85% of the school district’s general fund spending, those cuts would soon mean reductions in staffing or salaries, he added. In further discussion, he mentioned the furlough days that were used to cut pay of teachers and other personnel following the 2008 economic downturn.

After Tedders made what was interpreted as a motion to set the millage at the new, higher rate and District 2 board member Elizabeth Williams seconded it, board members made statements and asked questions for more than 40 minutes. What Womack had actually asked for was a motion “to talk about the approval of the millage rate,” and when the discussion wrapped up, he asked for a vote to set the rate at the amount Wilson had recommended.

When Williams asked about the effect on the district’s Career Technical & Agricultural Education program’s proposed College & Career Academies, Wilson replied that he could say with “comfortable certainty” the plan would have to be put on hold if state equalization funding was lost.

“I do know when I ran for the Board of Education, I ran for the kids in the schools, and as a governing body, that is our number-one choice in our decision making,” said District 4 member Donna Clifton.

Another retired educator serving on the board, District 5 member Glennera Martin, cast the one “no” vote. She suggested the school district could find other funding sources, such as grants, and possibly cut some non-salary spending.

“I care about the students in Bulloch County. I also care about the families in Bulloch County. …,” Martin said.


All hearings attended

All eight board members attended Friday’s noon special session to vote on the millage rate. Seven or eight had also shown up for previous day, Thursday, Sept. 7, at 6 p.m. for the last of the hearings for public input, after six members attended the 9 a.m. hearing, also Thursday, and six members the hearing at noon one week earlier, Aug. 31.

During the first hearing, six citizens spoke against the tax increase or suggested that the board find alternative funding sources. Three or four citizens spoke at each of Thursday’s hearings, including one, a retired educator, who spoke in favor of the increase during the 6 p.m. session.

The school district initially held tax hearings Aug. 10 at noon and Aug. 17 at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., but only staff members were there to explain the proposed increase.

None of the board members had attended those first hearings, as county residents Cassandra Mikell and Lawton Sack noted in a request they filed in Bulloch County Superior Court seeking an injunction blocking the board from voting on the millage rate Aug. 18 as first planned. A judge dismissed the request for being improperly filed, but board members postponed their tax decision and scheduled the second round of hearings. Sack and Mikell were among the citizens who stated objections at several of the hearings.

Averaging 16%, the school board’s tax increase is a more modest one that the in-effect 28% increase recently approved by the Board of Commissioners in the county government portion of the tax, or the 44.75 % increase proposed and advertised – again a compound of millage hike and assessment inflation – by Statesboro officials in the city’s separate property tax.


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