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Public gets its say on tax increase
Two hearings set for Tuesday on proposed 18.1 percent hike
Bulloch County Seal W

The Bulloch County Board of Commissioners will hold two hearings Tuesday and a third on Aug. 4 to allow input from citizens concerning a proposed increase in property taxes of 18.1 percent.

Hearings are set for noon and 6 p.m. Tuesday and 5:30 p.m. Aug. 4 in the Bulloch County Annex on North Main Street to review a tax increase proposal of 1.9 mills. Commissioners voted to pass the 2016 budget of $36.58 million on June 30, which is an increase of $2.95 million over the 2015 budget.

Commissioners have not raised taxes since 2007, but increased needs due to population growth and other factors mandate either a tax increase or severe cuts to current services, said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch.

While the actual increase in taxes collected is estimated to be 18.1 percent, taxes on a home with a fair market value of $125,000 will be around $91 more, which is an increase of just over 7 percent.

The discrepancy is due to variations in taxes depending on where a resident lives, Couch said. There are different factors such as whether a resident lives in the fire tax district or inside the city limits, as well as homestead exemptions and how school taxes affect an individual taxpayer, he said.

Over the past several years, Couch said, the county has made cuts everywhere possible in efforts to avoid a tax increase. Reducing full-time positions through attrition and delaying filling vacated positions has helped, he said.


Commissioners support budget

During a June budget meeting, Board Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil, along with Commissioners Roy Thompson, Walter Gibson, Anthony Simmons, Ray Mosley and Robert Rushing, expressed approval of the budget process and the need for a tax increase.

"I would have found it very hard to vote for a tax increase had I not sat through these budget meetings," Rushing said. "They made a believer out of me."

"We don't want to raise taxes, but it is a must," Thompson said.

Couch said that there are new positions in the 2016 budget that must be filled to provide services for the growing county's demand, including adding deputy positions to the Bulloch County Sheriff's Department. Some employees holding eliminated positions were moved to empty positions in other departments, he said.

The main area of need is in public safety - Emergency Medical Service, Bulloch County 911, the Bulloch County Fire Department and the sheriff's department. Needs are growing exponentially due to community growth and an increase in crime and emergencies. Also, Bulloch County is becoming a "regional economic hub" for services, shopping and other things such as entertainment, he said.


Other budget factors

As part of keeping expenses down, the proposed budget does not include any raises in salaries for the upcoming year. Past employee raises were limited to full-time workers only, and raises were only 1 to 2.5 percent, based on merit, Couch said. Many county employees are seasonal or part-time.

County expenditures "have flatlined since 2009," Couch said. However, revenues have dropped an average of 4 percent a year since then.

Consistent funding losses from the state of Georgia, mostly in the form of grants that were reduced or eliminated, have put a pinch on the county budget as well, he said.

The Homestead Tax Relief Grant "is hurting us on the revenue side, and a lot of special interest exemptions" reduce revenue. The grant reductions and eliminations have "been done progressively over the years" and caused a significant impact on county revenues. There are more than 80 sales tax exemptions as well, including the changes in the title ad valorem tax, he said.


County fund balance

Another key factor, Couch said, in the need for a tax increase is to rebuild the county's fund balance. The county has used funds from the balance over the past few years to avoid a tax increase, he said.

The county's credit rating is good, but continuing to have a deficit in the fund balance could affect that. Having a five-year plan in place to rebuild the fund balance is a boon to keeping the "excellent credit rating" the county has, and maintaining a "good structural budget" is a plus, Couch said.

Having and maintaining a stellar credit rating helps county taxpayers in ensuring the county has a good cash flow and is able to borrow money in case of emergent need, and it "shows signs of good strength in financial management," he said.

The county has little debt in the general fund, and that consists of only short-term state loans, equipment loans and Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax loans, according to Couch.

Good credit also means the county will be able to secure the means of providing residents mandated and necessary services, he said.

Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.

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