After spending an hour Tuesday morning hearing senior citizens talk about school tax exemptions, Bulloch County commissioners approved a FY 2020 budget that includes a small millage rollback.
“We will have at least a half-mil rollback, to compensate for property taxes going up,” said Bulloch County Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson. “We saw a way to be able to do this and that and roll it back, hoping this will please people.”
There was a standing-room-only crowd at the 8:30 a.m. meeting Tuesday for the exemption portion of the public hearing — “the largest morning meeting we have ever had,” he said. However, only three people aside from county employees remained after a brief recess, staying while commissioners held the second public hearing regarding the budget.
The commission approved a budget of $41,831,092, which is $1,452,051 more than the FY 2019 budget.
Seniors speak out
More than 100 people, including state Rep. Jan Tankersley and Sen. Jack Hill, filled the commission meeting room Tuesday and stood in the hallway as well, listening to several residents talk about the need for allowing senior citizens an exemption from paying the portion of property taxes that go to the Bulloch County Board of Education.
Although it is the Bulloch County school board that would be responsible for sending a resolution to the state government seeking approval of a local referendum for the exemption, commissioners listened to several senior citizens express their feelings.
Bulloch County Board of Education member April Newkirk also attended the meeting and invited seniors to attend a school board meeting to further discuss the issue.
“We hear you, and I look forward to collaborating with you,” she said, addressing the crowd and admitting she came away from the meeting with a different perspective. “As a school board, we can do better to serve our community.”
Residents who spoke about the suggested school tax exemption listed several reasons for the exemption, including people struggling to survive on fixed incomes and people with no children or whose children graduated decades ago who still have to pay the school tax.
Nan Rushing, who is 90, said she had written three letters to the tax assessor’s office as well as an editorial in the Statesboro Herald, but never got a response from county officials.
Calling the tax “outrageous,” she said she has paid the school taxes for 70 years.
“Enough is enough,” she said.
Pearlie Smith, 68, said she never had a child but has paid school taxes for four decades. Her mother, 86, has gone without food in order to pay taxes and bills, she said.
“Senior citizens have paid their fair share,” she said.
Kay Anderson claimed the school board “does not need our taxes. They are abused and overspent.” She showed a textbook she said was “brand new” that was among several to be thrown away by the school system. The books were confiscated and “will be sent overseas to children who will appreciate them.”
After hearing several people speak, Thompson, who is 73, said, “I don’t think there is a commissioner up here who does not want to fix this.”
Luree Bowen, 82, referenced Hill as a “person who can speak for us in the state capital.”
Both Hill and Tankersley were asked to come forward from where they had been standing in the hallway.
“I came here to listen and took a heck of a lot of notes,” Hill said. “Jan Tankersley and I both want to work with the school board and community to help the citizens.”
Tankersley said, “It has been really interesting to hear all the comments. I will do everything I can on the state level” to help achieve the goal of exempting seniors from school taxes.
Commissioner Anthony Simmons, who said his mother is 88 and retired from the school system, expressed empathy for older residents and others on fixed incomes.
“We will do what we can to assist the school board to relieve some of the pressure,” he said.
Thompson asked the crowd what age they suggested as a starting point for the proposed exemption. Answers from the crowd ranged from 65 to 80. Some suggested taking a person’s income and net worth into consideration as well.
In order to accomplish such an exemption, the school board would have to send a resolution making the request through a local state representative, who would have to introduce a bill in the state Legislature. If it is approved by the Legislature, it would go to the governor to be signed, and returned back to the county for a referendum for voters to decide.
With the approved FY 2020 budget of $41,831,092 and the millage reduction, most county departments will see an increase in budgeted funds. Many departments went over budget in 2019, while some spent less than expected.
Last year, departments that stayed at or under budget included the clerk of the board, tax commissioner, Superior Court judges, clerk of courts, district attorney, state court, state court solicitor, Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office administration, criminal investigations, crime suppression, correctional institute, public safety administration, county attorneys, GIS, human resources, animal shelter, animal control, and all parks and recreation divisions.
Departments over budget in FY 2019 included county manager expenditures, Bulloch County Jail, Bulloch County Court Services (under supervision of the sheriff), elections, tax assessor’s office, agricultural arena, magistrate court, finance department, EMS, engineering, coroner’s office, roads department, and solid waste.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.