Last week in the first two of three required hearings, Statesboro’s mayor and council members heard no direct objections to a proposed increase of up to 1 mill in property taxes.
The final hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday, also at City Hall, and the council could vote to set the millage in the regular meeting that follows.
If approved at a half mill as Mayor Jan Moore first suggested, the tax rise could fund a 7.72 percent raise in the starting salary for police officers, plus upward adjustments in pay for police through the rank of sergeant, City Manager Randy Wetmore said. The Statesboro Police Department’s new starting pay for certified officers would then be $35,500, up from the current $32,956.
While none objected to raising police pay, several citizens who spoke during the hearings at noon and 6 p.m. Thursday asked that the city find another way to fund the raises if possible.
Bryan Davis, property manager for Hendley Properties, noted that about 1,000 Bulloch County and Statesboro residents live in housing the rental company owns. Many of them are university students.
“We know this is badly needed,” Davis said. “We’re seeing a cry from the students and the parents that they want more police force out there, so we know that y’all need the tools to recruit more people and keep these people and train them to be the best that our town can have.”
But Hendley Properties liked the way the city created a fee on all residential and commercial addresses to fund storm water drainage improvements and maintenance, instead of charging this to property owners alone, he said.
“The citizen base is raising those funds instead of it just being on one group to raise these funds,” Davis said. “This is really an entire-community issue. It is not just a landowner issue, but I do understand your hands are kind of tied how you can raise those funds.”
Limited tax base
Moore and District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum pointed out that Georgia Southern University, as a tax-exempt state institution, pays no property taxes. Statesboro has other tax-exempt properties in its city limits, including those belonging to the Bulloch County government, the federal courthouse and many churches, Boyum noted.
Moore also pointed out that while most Georgia cities share in the regular local option sales tax with their counties, Statesboro does not. In fact, Bulloch County is one of seven Georgia counties where all of the regular 1 percent sales tax revenue goes to the local Board of Education and not to the county government or any of the towns.
The city of Statesboro does get a share of a separate special-purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST, but this is restricted to use for capital expenditures, such as building projects, paving, pipelines and equipment purchases. As Moore noted, SPLOST revenue cannot be used for salaries.
“You can see where we’re just squeezed in a very unusual way,” she said.
Despite being engines for the local economy, neither the university nor shoppers add directly to the tax base for city services, she noted.
In addition to the counties where the regular local option sales tax revenue goes to schools, a few Georgia counties do not have a regular LOST at all.
Of the largest cities in the 10 Georgia counties where cities do not receive LOST revenue, Statesboro’s property tax millage rate is fourth-lowest, according to a comparison city officials provided in a slide show. Statesboro’s rate of 6.358 mills is higher than rates of 6.35 mills in Clarkesville, 3.529 in Summerville and 2.3 in Moultrie, but lower than rates in six other cities, ranging from 6.551 in Duluth to 23.587 mills in Marietta.
The 7.72 percent police pay raise would cost $322,105, and a half-mill added property tax should net $323,717, Wetmore reported. A full 1 mill increase is projected to net $674,434 revenue, and could fund a 15.44 percent police raise, making the starting pay $38,044.
However, District 2 Councilman Sam Lee Jones has suggested that a portion of a 1 mill increase be used to fund other things, such as a public pool or other community recreation projects.
At Thursday’s noon hearing, Jones asked that city of Statesboro employees be surveyed on whether they approve of singling out the Police Department for a raise.
But one or two speakers, particularly retired New York City police officer Henry Sokolski, who is now a Bulloch County resident but not a Statesboro resident, urged raises that would require the entire 1 mill or more.
“They’re way underpaid,” he said. “To me, it’s an insult.”
Area police salaries
After a new pay plan for Statesboro city employees was adopted last year, Statesboro’s police starting salary is about midrange for the area. A raise to $35,500 would place it above current starting salaries for departments in Guyton, Hinesville, Richmond Hill, Port Wentworth, Garden City and Augusta, according to the city’s chart. It will still be below the starting salaries in Rincon, Effingham County, Dublin, Bloomingdale and Savannah.
Statesboro Police Chief Mike Broadhead declined to specify an amount for the proposed. But he again said that a boost in starting salaries is needed to keep the department, currently 10 officers short of fully staffed, from falling further behind as competition for qualified officers intensifies.
With property in Georgia assessed for taxes at 40 percent of its market value, a 1 mill increase would amount to $40 added annual tax on a home with a $100,000 market value. So, on a home of that value, a half mill increase would be $20.
Same for 10 years
Statesboro’s current property tax rate, 6.358 mills, has been in effect 10 years, since 2008, and was reduced that year, from 6.921 mills in 2007.
In 10 years, the city’s revenue from the tax increased $788,533, from a little over $3.1 million in 2007 to a little over $3.9 million this year. Meanwhile, police expenditures increased $1.47 million, to $6.27 million this year, city officials reported with their slide presentation.
So Statesboro’s total property tax revenue is less than what it spends on the Police Department alone. Transfers from the city’s enterprise funds, including the water and sewer service, the natural gas service and sanitation, help support the general fund. But regulations limit how these funds can be used, Moore said during the hearings.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.