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Bulloch officials suggest 9th penny sales tax to roll back property tax–eventually
‘OLOST’ would require state legislation and local agreement
The Bulloch County Board of Commissioners and staff convene their July 5 meeting, where a possible ninth penny of sales tax was advocated during public comments time by Lawton Sack and then noted briefly by County Manager Tom Couch, who first suggested the “Son of OLOST” approach about a year ago. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Facing criticism for increasing property taxes, some Bulloch County officials are eyeing the prospect of a ninth penny of sales tax on nonexempt items. But the “Other Local Option Sales Tax” proposed by County Manager Tom Couch would require state legislation involving seven counties and a local agreement among Bulloch County and its cities.

In other words, there’s no way it could become a reality in time to have any effect on 2023 property taxes. The idea is to provide an alternative revenue source, and corresponding rollback of the property tax millage rate, for years to come.

Netting upwards of $17 million annually, the sales tax could replace nearly one-third of the county’s general fund property tax millage and entirely replace the current city property taxes collected by Statesboro, Portal and Register and almost 90% of Brooklet’s, if distributed by population with the county getting credit for just the population of its unincorporated area. Under a different scenario, which Couch says would be more equitable, the county, as well as each city, would get credit for the cities’ populations, increasing the county’s tax rollback but still reducing city property taxes to a fraction of the current rates.

“We can figure out the semantics as we go down the road, as long as we don’t make it too confusing or convoluted, but if everybody not only in our county but in six other counties is willing to climb on this wagon and try to figure out how we can maximize property tax relief by collecting a ninth penny, is it not worth exploring?” Couch said in a recent interview.


‘School LOST’ counties

The six other counties he is talking about are not Bulloch’s neighboring counties, but a far-flung set of Georgia counties which, like Bulloch, have all of the revenue from their original Local Option Sales Tax, or LOST, going to their school systems’ operating budgets in exchange for a rollback of school property taxes.

In a majority of Georgia’s 159 counties, county governments and city governments divide the revenue from the original LOST. But in Bulloch, Chattooga, Colquitt, Habersham, Houston, Mitchell, and Rabun counties, that “original penny” of sales tax is dedicated to the schools, and the county and city governments receive no general revenue sales tax for maintenance and operations. This arrangement has existed in Bulloch County for about 40 years.

However, those cities and counties can receive revenue from additional sales taxes approved by local voters for special purposes.


Current 8 pennies

The sales taxes currently collected in Bulloch County are Georgia’s 4% state tax and these four 1% local option taxes: the original LOST; the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST; an additional special sales tax for education purposes, or E-SPLOST; and newest, the sales tax for transportation purposes, or T-SPLOST.

The name OLOST, for Other Local Option Sales Tax, was actually coined for an additional 1% tax allowed only to the eight consolidated city-county governments in Georgia but implemented so far by just two of them.

The city of Columbus (consolidated with Muskogee County for more than 50 years) was authorized a second, or “other” penny of LOST by the state Legislature in 2004 and enacted the tax in 2008 by local referendum. Voters in consolidated Macon-Bibb County approved an OLOST in 2021 after the Legislature amended the relevant state law that year. It now shows the wording of the referendum question to be used to enact the tax in any consolidated city-county.


‘Son of OLOST’

Couch, to differentiate the added LOST he is suggesting for non-consolidated counties with school LOSTs, has half-jokingly called it a “Son of OLOST” tax.

When property tax increases are proposed here, citizens at tax hearings have often suggested that the Bulloch County commissioners or Statesboro City Council add a sales tax or make different use of the existing sales taxes. Local officials, including Couch, have traditionally explained that this was impossible, since the special-purpose taxes are restricted to certain uses.

But a little over one year ago, he says, he had a sort of “epiphany” after seeing how the OLOST for consolidated governments was enacted.

“It just kind of hit me, and it’s like, OK, these consolidated counties, they had an unusual situation so something was written into the sales tax statute for them, and here we are seven other counties and we’re in a unique circumstance. …,” Couch said.  “What if we, these seven counties – and ideally the cities – what if we all get together and make a pitch and get a bill written, drop it in the General Assembly,” Couch said.

If such a bill became law, each county and the cities within it would have to agree to a distribution of the revenues. Couch suggests that this agreement should be renewed every 10 years, based on census results, instead of after five years like the SPLOST and T-SPLOST. The longer wait, he said, could help forestall a situation in which the local governments would be perpetually negotiating shares of one sales tax or another.

He discussed this idea briefly with county commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson and Statesboro City Manager Charles Penny last year. Couch mentioned the proposal again during the commissioners’ budget work session with county department heads in March.

Lawton Sack, chairman of the Bulloch County Republican Party, then discussed it with leaders of some of the county’s public safety agencies outside the Board of Commissioners’ June 27 meeting, just after the commissioners voted approval for the fiscal year 2024 budget with its 22% increase in projected general fund revenue. Couch has recommended a 1.75-mill, or 15.4%, increase in the county’s base property tax rate, on top of inflation in assessed property values, but a board decision on that awaits final tax digest numbers from the assessors’ office and three tax hearings for public input.

Speaking to the commissioners during public comments time at the July 5 meeting, Sack said he and the public safety officers “were on the same page of pushing forward for this 1% sales tax increase in lieu of the millage rate increase.”  He also noted complaints from senior citizens about rising property taxes.

“I truly feel like this 1 percent sales tax is a way for Bulloch County to move forward without burdening our senior citizens and our property owners,” Sack said. “So I think that it would be best for us to work alongside the citizens and the public safety officials and work with the commissioners and see if we can come up with this as a being a permanent solution to an ever-increasing millage rate.”


Not a bill yet

But the Georgia General Assembly doesn’t convene in regular session until January, and local legislators are only now hearing about Couch’s idea.

Rep. Lehman Franklin, R-District 160, Statesboro, wasn’t aware of the “Son of OLOST” proposal until the Statesboro Herald phoned him July 12, and Sen. Billy Hickman, R-District 4, Statesboro, said July 13 he had only just heard about it from Franklin. Both said it was too early to express an opinion.

“I kind of like that the fact that they’re looking into alternative ways to relieve the stress, but there are pros and cons and it’s just too much to dive into at this point,” Franklin said.

Similarly, Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar, whose office is nonpartisan but who has spoken at Democratic Party events, said he had had “conversation in passing” with city staff about the sales tax idea but has not heard enough to form an opinion. He said he is interested in finding another revenue source but may have concerns about sales taxes going to 9%.

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