In Statesboro, the annual city property tax on a $100,000 home, for example, will increase by roughly $40 after City Council on Tuesday approved an effective 1 mill hike in the tax rate.
Several weeks ago, Mayor Jan Moore suggested an increase of a half mill to fund a raise in starting pay for Statesboro Police Department officers. The city then advertised a 1 mill increase after Councilman Sam Lee Jones said he wanted the other half mill to go to community projects, such as creation of a public pool.
But other council members said that if a full-mill increase were approved, they wanted all the new revenue to go to "public safety," particularly for police raises. That continued to be debated Tuesday morning, but the resolution that council eventually approved simply sets the new rate of 7.308 mills without specifying a use for the added revenue. The four council members present agreed informally that at least one-half mill, and possibly more, will go to the police raise.
"I make the motion of 1 mill so we can help the men in blue, as well as the citizens," Jones said Tuesday.
He suggested "a 50-50 split," with half going to the police raise.
"We're not going to solve the problem immediately, but I think it's a good start," Jones said. "It will give us the opportunity to increase the rate to attract new officers and keep them as well as 0.5 (mill), or half, to do something for the citizens."
Councilman John Riggs seconded the motion, allowing specific discussion to go forward, but he insisted through part of it that the entire mill should go to police raises. The SPD continues to have 10 vacancies for certified police officers.
Projected to net $323,717 in new revenue, a half-mill increase would have covered the cost of raising the salary of newly hired certified officers from the current $32,956 to $35,500 and extending the raise up to the rank of sergeant. The approved full-mill increase doubles the new revenue projection.
"I am for the entire mill going to fill these 10 vacant police jobs, the entire mill for public safety," Riggs said.
That was also Councilman Jeff Yawn's original position.
"If we're going to do the 1 mill, I think at this time safety is the priority, and I think it needs to be spoken for specifically to the Police Department," Yawn said.
Moore asked Jones what particular "needs of the citizens" he had in mind.
"One of the things is a pool," Jones said. "I think that everybody deserves an opportunity to learn how to swim. Inside the city limits right now, there's no pool."
Moore did not recommend any level for the millage increase Tuesday, saying that was for the council members to decide. But she expressed agreement with Jones about a lack of recreation facilities in the city.
Under the local service delivery strategy, the Bulloch County government is responsible for providing recreation to Statesboro residents, Moore said. But the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department's programming in Statesboro is concentrated at Mill Creek Regional Park and its Splash in the Boro waterpark.
"While Mill Creek is a wonderful thing, it has made us lazy, because everything goes to Mill Creek, and our citizens within the city don't have a lot of recreational opportunity," Moore said.
She commented that Splash in the Boro is "not a community pool" but more of "a tourist attraction."
Riggs noted that a pool would be a capital expense and suggested it could be funded from other sources, such as Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
"I'm more than happy to do that, but the general fund is the only place that we can get salary and benefits for public safety. ...," Riggs said. "I feel that the entire mill needs to go to public safety. It needs to go to the police, and I say it because we have a crime problem."
Meanwhile, Councilman Phil Boyum noted that the draft resolution setting the millage rate didn't actually spell out where the money would go. But he agreed that at least a half mill should go to the police raise.
"Yes, we intend for this money to go there, and we certainly are directing the city manager and the chief to take at least half this mill and put it toward the police, but I think to lock it in for that is not appropriate in this meeting," Boyum said. "That's for budget time."
He suggested making "the other half a mill discretionary for the city manager to come back and bring some options." Some or all of the second half mill could also go into police raises if the manager and police chief believe this is needed to fill the vacancies, he said.
Jones agreed to rephrase his motion so that it simply called for setting the tax rate at 7.308 mills. This was the rate the city had advertised, making it the maximum that could have been adopted.
Riggs also agreed, and the rephrased motion passed 4-0, with Councilman Travis Chance absent.
Technically, the new rate is 0.95 mill higher than the old rate, 6.358 mills, which was in effect for 10 consecutive years. But because a marginal rollback would have been required to offset rising property values, the new rate is considered an effective increase of 1 mill.
The tax increase will take effect with 2017 taxes, due in December.
The council's expressed intent makes the police raise a certainty for the next fiscal year's budget, starting July 1, 2018, but a raise could be adopted sooner on a separate vote, said City Manager Randy Wetmore.
"There's a possibility before the beginning of the next fiscal year that we can do that," he said.
Support at hearings
Earlier in Tuesday's meeting, the council held the third of its required tax increase hearings. As in the two earlier hearings, all the individuals who spoke expressed support for the police raise.
Realtor and developer Nick Propps is president of the Statesboro Police Officers Foundation but said he spoke as a property owner and not for the foundation. Statesboro's pay for police officers "shouldn't just be a little bit better; we need to be a lot better," he said.
"Knowing what I know about the other departments in our area that pick our guys off and they wait until we train them and then they pay them more to encourage them to leave - which makes sense when you're supporting your family - we can't allow that to continue," Propps said.
Bennie Herring, 88, has been a Statesboro resident for 63 years and said she lives on Social Security and investments but supports the tax increase.
"We must take care of our policemen," she said. "They're taking care of us."
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.