The proposed budget being set out this week by the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners and staff for fiscal year 2023 allows for a one-fourth mill rollback in the property tax rate. But because of 9% inflation in the average value of taxable property, owners on average will still pay more in property tax than last year.
Based on the inflationary growth in property values, Bulloch County Chief Tax Appraiser John Scott informed the commissioners that a rollback of roughly one full mill would likely be needed to avoid holding tax increase hearings this fall under the state law known as the Georgia Property Taxpayers Bill of Rights.
With property in Georgia generally taxed on 40% of market value, 1-mill rollback would eliminate about $40 worth of tax on property that was worth $100,000 at the beginning of 2021 but showed an average increase in value for 2022. The proposed quarter-mill rollback avoids about $10 of that increase but leaves the hypothetical $100,000 property owner to pay the other $30.
“We’re trying, and I wish we could do the whole mill, but if we did, then we’ve got to cut further staff, we’ve got to cut services, and we just can’t cut any more,” commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson said in a phone call Thursday. “But we just want the citizens to know that we are trying, and at least a quarter of a mill is something.”
The latest budget forecasts by County Manager Tom Couch, Chief Financial Officer Kristie King and other members of the county finance team include $2.48 million deficit spending over annual revenue. By the end of the new fiscal year on June 30, 2023, the proposed budget would reduce the county’s general fund balance, currently almost $14 million, to about $11.5 million.
While total general fund revenues from all sources are projected at $48.38 million, the budget projects total expenditures of $50.86 million. Revenue growth combined with spending from the balance will allow the county to provide a 6% raise for all of its employees, hire about 15 new personnel – but not as many as were requested by department heads – and have about $1.35 million to cover inflation in expenses such as motor fuel.
With the quarter-mill rollback, the county staff is also assigning $530,000 in costs to American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, or ARPA, funds anticipated from the federal government. Without that, the year’s deficit, or projected drawdown of balance, would exceed $3 million.
The process of creating this budget took nine or 10 weeks and began with the finance team and a few commissioners interviewing 44 representatives of county departments and outside agencies the county helps fund, Thompson noted.
“We felt that this year it was worthwhile to do that because we got a very high amount of requests for additional funding, primarily for internal personnel, and the outside agencies asked for a lot too, particularly the courts,” Couch said a couple of weeks ago.
In a May 31 budget work session with the commissioners, his slideshow included four options for balancing the budget with millage rate increases of from 0.139 to 1.495 mills or deficit spending amounts of $348,335 to almost $3.74 million. The lowest millage increase and deficit was with a “do nothing” option with no employee raises and no new hires. The highest was a “do everything” option, funding the raise and hiring all 28 new employees requested from the general fund.
“The commissioners don’t want to go up on the tax rates this year, but they understand they may have to soberly look at it next year,” Couch said after that session.
The version of the budget now being presented is a modification of his original Option 4, an in-between spending option with “budget manipulation,” for the ARPA funding to cover some of the costs. It funds the 6% pay raise and 15 new employees in the general fund, but with the allowed time for hiring the new personnel staggered through the fiscal year – some July 1, 2022, but others not until Jan. 1, 2023 – to limit total first fiscal-year cost.
Commissioners informally agreed to keep the 6% raise in any budget they considered. As county and city officials have noted, the annual inflation rate is now topping 8%, and unlike the city of Statesboro’s proposed 4% across-the-board raise, the county’s 6% is not paired with funding for pay-for-performance raises.
“We completed a study and most of our (county government) employees are very underpaid like a lot of other employees in Bulloch County,” Thompson said. “They’ve not received the increases that they should have because, you know, we’ve been trying to keep from going up on taxes, but if we’re going to keep them, we’re going to have to pay them, and we’ve got some of the best employees anywhere.”
Couch has emphasized to commissioners that, with current trends a millage rate increase, being avoided this year for fiscal 2023, will be needed next calendar year, for fiscal 2024. He described it as necessary to maintain “structural balance,” with millage being a continuing factor in revenue and the county facing increased demands on its services from population growth, as well as the current surge in inflation and competition for employees.
In the budget slideshow, the impact of Hyundai Motors’ announced plans to build a vast electric vehicle and EV battery plant at the multi-county Mega-site near Interstate 16 in Bryan County by 2025 was included in a “watch list” for future demands on Bulloch County’s government services. The construction of Aspen Aerogels’ insulation plant in Bulloch’s Southern Gateway Commerce Park and other developers showing interest within the county also hint at accelerated population growth, Thompson noted.
“Bulloch County is growing and it is fixing to really grow. …,” he said. “It’s not little Bulloch County anymore.”
Added county employees to be hired under the proposed general fund budget include, for the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office and Jail, four detention corporals for the jail (two July 1 and two Jan. 1), two patrol
deputies (one each, July 1 and Jan. 1) and one deputy to be assigned as a school resource officer (July 1) for Stilson Elementary School.
Other general-fund new positions are proposed one each for the clerk of courts, tax assessor and elections offices, Animal Services, building inspections and Bulloch County Correctional Institute, plus two for Parks & Recreation. At least three part-time positions are also being converted to full-time.
Six new firefighters and a fire inspector are slated to be paid from the county’s rural fire fund, pending grant applications.
The quarter-mill rollback would reduce the countywide, basic millage from 11.6 mills to 11.35 mills. But the added fire service millage rates for the county rural fire district and Statesboro fire district will remain the same.
A hearing for public input on the budget – not yet a tax increase hearing – is slated for the commissioners’ 8:30 a.m. June 21 regular meeting. The commissioners have a called meeting slated for 8:30 a.m. June 28 to adopt the budget.