Bulloch County commissioners haven't raised taxes since 2007, but that trend is likely to end in 2015.
Increased needs due to population growth and other factors demand either a tax increase or severe cuts to services. And with many departments being understaffed, there is really nothing left to cut, said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch.
At a recent budget meeting, he told commissioners county taxes may have to be raised by 1.8 mils. More recently, Couch said the hike may reach 1.9 mils, but the final proposal won't be made until commissioners hold public hearings in July and August.
"We went through a very intensive budget process this year," he said.
Commissioner Roy Thompson displayed a stack of papers almost six inches thick that made up budget requests from all county departments. There are 30 departments and outside agencies making budget requests, Couch said.
The main area of need is in public safety - Emergency Medical Service, Bulloch 911, Bulloch County Fire Department and the Bulloch County Sheriff's Department.
Needs are growing exponentially due to community growth, an increase in crime and emergency needs, and Bulloch County becoming a "regional economic hub" for services, shopping and other things such as entertainment, he said.
Past short falls
In the past, Couch said the county commission "absorbed" budget deficiencies, cutting excess and trimming everywhere they could. There is nothing more to trim, but demands are increasing, and raising taxes is the only answer to fill needs.
County expenditures "have flatlined since 2009," Couch said. However, revenues have dropped an average of four percent a year since then. The proposed budget, which is still a work in progress, does not include any raises in salaries - just what is needed to maintain the level of services to citizens, he said.
Couch and commissioners want to rebuild a depleted fund balance and have enough money to fill all urgent needs. None like the idea of raising taxes, but it has become a necessity, he said.
Sheriff's budget needs
One of the most needful departments is the Bulloch County Sheriff's Department. In the department's budget request, Sheriff Lynn Anderson said, "Patrol staffing consists of only 24 deputies including supervisors. This is well below the recommended 31 deputies suggested by the most recent manpower study from 2002."
Minimum staffing requirements call for at least four deputies on weekdays and five on weekends, with even this number being insufficient for current call volume and proactive patrol activities, he wrote in a submitted request.
"To achieve even these minimal levels, taking into account deputies who are on sick or vacation leave, deputies must be called in on overtime."
Even more coverage is needed for special events such as the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair, concerts at Georgia Southern University and the Fourth of July Festival at Mill Creek, Anderson said.
Bulloch County needs more ambulances and EMTs, Bulloch 911 is understaffed and other departments, not just public safety but all departments, have unmet needs, Couch said.
The decision to raise taxes, yet only fund necessary budget requests, is not easy, Thompson said. "Not all employees are going to be happy."
Showing the thick stack of budget requests, he said there are "$10 to $11 million worth of requests here. It would take a seven mil increase to" grant all requests. "We don't want to raise taxes, but it is a must."
No outrageous or unreasonable requests were made, but it is impossible to grant all, and public safety has the most urgent need, Thompson said. "It is what it is."
Commissioners back process
Couch said handling budget needs by eliminating positions "would mean termination of about 40 people. We can't do that without cutting services," he said. "The bag of tricks (to avoid a tax increase) is really kind of empty."
Commissioner Walter Gibson expressed appreciation for the budget process this year that involved all department heads. "This was probably the best budget process we have had in years."
Commissioner Anthony Simmons agreed.
"I've been here (as county commissioner) over 20 years and this is the best budget I've seen," he said. "We have grown a lot in 20 years. If the county is going to grow, we have to protect the people."
Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil praised the board for a job well done.
"I think this board has done an outstanding job in doing the best we can with what we have," he said. "Decisions have to be made to keep up with demands, and revenues haven't kept up. Our expenses continue to rise like everybody else's."
Commissioner Ray Mosley credited Couch for hard work.
"I have to give kudos to Tom," he said. "My mind is made up that we have to go forward."
Raising taxes isn't something commissioners take lightly, said Commissioner Robert Rushing.
"I would have found it very hard to vote for a tax increase had I not sat through these budget meetings," he said. "They made a believer out of me."
After commissioners finalize details and vote in the budget proposal, there will be three public hearings before the budget is approved, Couch said. Tentative dates for the public hearings, where citizens can view the budget, are two in July and one in early August, he said.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.