After dozens of county residents at three public hearings voiced opposition to a 1.5-mill rate hike that compounds with real estate inflation to a more than 28% average increase in property tax, the Bulloch County commissioners met at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and voted 6-0 to approve it.
Tuesday’s meeting lasted less than five minutes. Seat 1-B Commissioner Anthony Simmons made the motion to adopt the millage as advertised, and Seat 2-C Commissioner Jappy Stringer seconded it. None of the commissioners made any comments before adjourning the meeting.
Interviewed afterward, Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson – who asked for the motion but who didn’t vote since he only does so when there’s a tie – explained the increase in terms of the county government meeting its obligations in the face of rising costs and expected growth.
“To operate the county with enough funds to cover all the services and everything else that is required of us, I mean, we have to have the monies to fund it, and even as of this morning we were looking for ways to cut,” Thompson said.
He had talked to county staff members, including County Manager Tom Couch, about spending cuts that might have reduced the increase by a fraction of a mill.
“We probably could have cut a little bit out, but from what we heard from probably 50 people that spoke in those three meetings, we didn’t think that we could cut enough to satisfy people,” Thompson said. “I mean, it would have been just a minute amount.”
About 50 was the cumulative count of citizens who signed up and spoke, 16 or 17 at each of the three tax increase hearings beginning at 6:30 p.m. on three Mondays, Aug. 7, Aug. 14 and Aug. 21. Several, but not all, were the same individuals speaking at two or three of the hearings. A cumulative attendance estimate was around 300, again counting some people multiple times.
This Monday’s hearing, the night before the decision meeting, drew the largest crowd of all, with the 100-plus audience seats occupied in the commissioners’ boardroom and more than the usual number of people standing in back and out in the hallway.
During some of the hearings, Couch said, but did not guarantee, that the increase this year could position the county to be able to provide millage rollbacks within the next few years. But he and Chief Financial Officer Kristie King and chiefs of county departments, especially those involved in public safety, said the large revenue increase is needed this year just to catch up to growth that has already occurred and to meet previously neglected needs for expansion in basic services.
Shadow of Hyundai
However, Bulloch County’s part in the four-county and state effort that is bringing Hyundai Motor Group’s massive Metaplant America electric vehicle and battery manufacturing complex to northern Bryan County has been on the minds of Bulloch officials proposing the tax increase as well as citizens opposing it. The Development Authority of Bulloch County’s granting multi-year tax abatements to several industries, some of them Hyundai suppliers, to build factories within the county drew the ire of several speakers at each tax hearing. The abatements exempt the companies from the general county government portion of property taxes, but they will make payments equal to the school system and fire protection millages.
Thompson said he thinks of future jobs for his grandchildren, and everyone’s grandchildren, and believes that economic growth will make future tax rate reductions possible.
“And it’s just simply what we had to do so that we can start planning on rollbacks, so that we can start anticipating when these companies that are coming in will start paying taxes,” he said. “We’re going to look pretty smart in a few years, but you’ve got to get to that point.”
Inflation plus millage
The county government’s new, general millage rate will be 12.85 mills, up from last year’s 11.35 mills. That alone would be a 13.2% increase. But this follows inflation, averaging almost 15%, in the assessed value of taxable property as determined by the county Board of Tax Assessors. Together, the inflation and the millage increase create a 28.04% general property tax increase for properties on average.
The county is also increasing its fire service millage in for the “rural” fire district served by the Bulloch County Fire Department by 1.03 mills.
The fiscal 2024 budget, approved by the commissioners in June and in effect since July 1, projects total general fund expenditures of $60.9 million, an increase of $10 million from the past fiscal year. It includes an 8% across-the-board raise for most county employees, estimated to cost a little over $1.9 million.
It also funds the hiring of additional personnel, with the largest numbers going to the public safety agencies. For the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office and Jail, the fiscal 2024 budget adds two new court services officers, one patrol deputy, six jailers and two school resource officers, but the Bulloch County Schools and private Bulloch Academy will provide a major portion of funding for those SROs.
The Emergency Medical Service will add 12 paramedics or EMTs plus one training officer. Construction of an addition at the Portal fire station to house an EMS station there is nearing completion, and the county has acquired land beside the Register fire station to add an EMS station there.
The EMS currently has only two stations, with one ambulance operating from Brooklet and four from Statesboro. The added buildings and staff will increase the EMS coverage to four stations and the number of “units” or staffed ambulances, on duty from five to seven each day as soon as possible after Jan. 1, 2024, said county Public Safety Director Ted Wynn.
“We didn’t put forth fluff; this is stuff that’s needed now and will put us in a better position to face the future, whatever that growth, whatever that footprint looks like, and there’s a lot of unknowns about that,” Wynn said after Tuesday’s vote. “But we know that it’s coming and we have got to be prepared and we’ve got to have the staff to respond to calls with the increased demand now and the increased demand that we expect in the future.”
But citizens who spoke during the hearings were unconvinced of the need for such a large tax increase, and some questioned the need for any increase.
“Other citizens might seem a bit more reasonable, like (another speaker) who’s willing to meet you halfway…,” said county resident Lucia Hurst, speaking to the commissioners Monday night. “However, I demand that you vote ‘no’ and not only send the budget back into deliberation with major cuts to the nonessentials, like 8 percent pay plan increase, Splash in the Boro, the unwanted Athens-to-Savannah bike trail, et cetera, but also throw the tax abatement subject back onto the table and allow the county citizens to vote on these incoming factories.”
Lawton Sack, chairman of the Bulloch County Republican Party, has been a frequent critic of the tax increase, speaking up at meetings beginning during the spring budget process. Five of the seven commissioners, including the chairman, are Republicans, while two are Democrats.
“It is very unfortunate that this was a decision made unanimously by the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners to go against the will of the citizens,” Sack said Tuesday. “I’ve been hearing a lot from the citizens, and this is something that they did not want and they feel like they’re not being represented by the vote today.
“There’s going to be a lot of pushback from the citizens of the county,” he continued. “We’ve already heard from several candidates that are planning on running and qualifying in March to run against the four commissioners that are up for election in 2024.”
The chairmanship will be up for election countywide next year. The seats held by Stringer and Commissioner Curt Deal, both Republicans in multi-seat District 2, and Ray Mosley, a Democrat in District 1, will also be up for election.
David Bennett, retired from a U.S. Army career in the Nurse Corps and now a resident of District 2, had spoken during the Aug. 14 hearing.
“I got up last week and … I said that there were two of these individuals that are from District 2, we’ve got a chairman that is going to be an at-large candidate, and I told them all if you vote for this, I will run against one of you, and that’s what I fully intend to do,” Bennett said Tuesday. “We have to have a change.”