Tuesday at 6 p.m. the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners holds the first in a series of three legally required public hearings for a 2% “increase” in property taxes, despite rolling back the millage rate by a fraction of a mill.
After this Aug. 10 hearing, the other two hearings will both be held in a single day one week later, at 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Aug. 17.
A law called the Georgia Taxpayer Bill of Rights requires that local governments either roll back their millage rates to compensate for rising property values or announce the revenue gain as a tax increase. This year’s situation is somewhat unusual because the commissioners are proposing a rollback, but not enough of one to avoid the requirement for hearings.
“It’s not a gigantic rollback, but we’re proud to be able to say we’re able to do something,” county commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson said last week. “We wish we could have rolled back more, but we’re doing everything we can within the confines of the money that we have and the services that we need to provide.”
If the county government held its property tax rate unchanged at last year’s 11.833 mills, this would produce an estimated revenue increase of $1,215,821 from higher assessed values. So that $1.2 million is also the amount of potential revenue the county would give up if the commissioners adopted the almost half-mill rollback to 11.37 mills required to avoid tax increase hearings.
By instead rolling back just 0.233 mill, to 11.6 mills, the county is giving up $525,369 of that revenue gain but wants to hold onto the remaining gain, approximately $690,452, according to County Manager Tom Couch.
“In (fiscal year) 2021, we had a very restricted budget because of the pandemic,” he stated in an email reply last week. “The F.Y. 2022 budget is very personnel-driven in an effort to restore services to a pre-pandemic level. It is driven primarily by needs in public safety and the court system.”
The county’s 2021 fiscal year ended June 30 and fiscal 2022 began July 1.
Sheriff & courts
After Sheriff Noel Brown had a staffing study done, the commissioners and Couch are trying to phase in funding for 27 additional personnel for the sheriff’s department and jail over five years. This includes providing five more jailers and two more deputies this fiscal year, Couch said.
The county leadership is also trying to restore Bulloch County Correctional Institution, which is operated by the county on a state contract, to “full strength to improve security and to manage additional inmates,” he wrote. Before and during the pandemic, he noted, BCCI’s staffing dropped by four positions.
Meanwhile, “the courts have become more expensive due to demands on the system,” Couch said. So the county has provided additional staff positions to help the clerk of courts, the State Court solicitor and the Probate Court manage caseloads. A high demand for firearm permits has increased the Probate Court office workload, he said.
Bulloch County and the three other counties have also seen increased funding demands from the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit agencies, including the District Attorney’s Office and Office of the Public Defender, as well as the Superior Court judges, Couch reports.
The counties are providing additional funding to meet increased caseloads at the D.A. and public defender offices, and the Juvenile Court portion of Superior Court operations has become more expensive, Couch said.
With state approval, the circuit is also adding a fourth Superior Court judge.
County pay raises
Other added expenditures in the budget that the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners approved June 15 include a 4% across-the-board raise for the county government’s employees and performance-based raises of up to 3%.
“Finally, there have been no raises for county employees for two years,” Couch stated in last week’s reply.
He referred to the 4% raise as a cost-of-living adjustment to keep the county’s pay plan “up-to-date and competitive so we can recruit and retain the best employees possible.”
The county is also offering an incentive match for its retirement plan to encourage employees to save more for retirement. Couch notes that the county plan is a “401-type” like those common in the private sector, not a defined-benefit pension, like those the state and city have, which he said can be very expensive.
Why not ARPA?
Earlier this year, Couch reported that the Bulloch County government could receive up to $15.5 million in federal funding under the American Rescue Plan Act over the next three years.
So, a question now is why the expected ARPA funding is not being used for the added costs he identified, allowing for a full rollback in the property tax.
“ARPA funds are very limited in their use,” Couch replied. “The Treasury Department has issued hundreds of pages of interim guidance regarding four primary uses that address the pandemic impact that we are still trying to decipher. One thing that seems clear is that we cannot just use funds to supplement our budget.”
The county is proceeding very cautiously with ARPA funding while waiting for a further guidance that may arrive this fall.
What’s a mill?
A mill is $1 tax on each $1,000 worth of property as assessed for taxes. In Georgia, most real estate is taxed at 40% of market value, so a mill really amounts to 40 cents on $1,000 in market value. But multiplied by the almost $2.25 billion worth of assessed property in Bulloch County, a mill now nets the county government almost $2.25 million annual revenue.
The county’s notice, published last week, indicated that the proposed tax increase from the partial rollback will amount to $13.62 on a owner-occupied home with a fair market value of $150,000 and $13.80 on a non-homestead $150,000 property. That’s on average. Whether the tax on a specific property goes up depends on the individual assessment.
School tax rollback
In fact, for most property owners, the Bulloch County Board of Education’s pending action to roll back its millage by 0.35 mills should counteract the remaining rise in the county government portion of the tax.
The school board is scheduled to set its 2021 millage rate at 8.568 mills during the board’s regular meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. Last year’s school millage was 8.918 mills, and the board has rolled it back annually since 2016, when the rate was 9.804 mills.
The school board’s proposed 2021 tax rollback is sufficient to avoid tax increase hearings.
It is a 3.9% decrease proportional to the total school millage, or in effect eliminates a 3.9% rise in taxes. A full rollback for the commissioners’ millage would also have amounted to 3.9%, while the partial rollback leaves a 2.02% rise.
But the school system receives all of Bulloch County’s original 1% Local Option Sales Tax and uses this for a permanent rollback. Without the L.O.S.T. revenue, the school board’s property tax rate would now be 14.755 mills.
The county would have received some increase in property tax revenue even with a full rollback, since only inflation in existing property values, not new buildings or improvements, are considered for rollback requirements. The county government is projected to net $171,487 added revenue from “real” growth due to construction while the school system gains $128,632 despite its rollback.