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Posted: June 15, 2010 10:39 p.m.

Prior millage rates tell interesting history

There has been a lot of discussion about the rollback millage rate and whether the county should approve it. Although it's called the rollback rate, the 10.9 rate would obviously be higher than the current 9.73 rate.

However, the 10.9 rate is the rate necessary to bring the county the same amount of property tax revenue as it collected the year before. Property tax revenue in this past fiscal year was projected to be nearly $27.7 million, around 57 percent of the budget.

If the board adopts anything other than the 9.73 rate, it will be the first change to the millage rate since the FY2001 budget year.

However, examining millage rates from the last 30 years reveals that the millage rate was actually changed every year from FY1981 to FY2000. In some years the fluctuations were fairly minor and in others fairly substantial. To see the historical millage rates check covnews.com.

Former Executive Assistant Brian Allen, who served from 1986 to 1995, said the county millage rate changed every year because the county simply attempted

to match revenues to necessary county services. The adjusted millage rate, after subtracting the savings resulting from the insurance millage rate rollback which hasn’t been used recently, for most of the 1990s hovered in the 7 millage rate range.

He said while the commissioners were generally conservative, there also wasn’t much growth. The county normally would build on the previous year’s county budget and adjust for any new costs like building openings or added infrastructure. Long-time Commissioner Rev. Harold Cobb said he it was almost impossible to have the same budget from year to year in the 80s and 90s because the needs would change slightly.

According to Allen and other current and former commissioners and financial officials, the passage of the Georgia Taxpayer Bill of Rights in 2000 was the turning point.

The main purpose of the taxpayer bill of rights was to protect taxpayers from indirect increased taxes due to property value inflation, according to the Georgia Department of Revenue’s website.

In the 2000s, property values increased nearly every year, which means property owners paid more taxes every year, because the millage rate remained at 9.73. Although the elected officials were not raising the millage rate, property owners were still paying more.

Whether this is a "tax increase" appears to be a semantic argument. Some officials, including the people who run millagerate.com, a site dedicated to millage rate issues in Georgia, believe the rollback rate should be used every year.

Nearly every year the 9.73 rate has existed, taxpayers have paid more money than the year before. In fact, any millage rate above the rollback rate requires additional public hearings and advertising, since it amounts to a tax increase, a requirement of the taxpayer bill of rights. So even if the millage rate doesn’t change, taxes can still increase.

However, the county was experiencing explosive growth during the decade, growing by 60 percent or more.

Commissioner Mort Ewing, who has been on the BOC since 2001, said the rollback rate was a major discussion on every board on which he’s served.

"We were playing catch up. We had huge growth in the late 90s, and that just continued when I took over in 2001. Our infrastructure had not caught up and with the increase in the value of the digest, we decided to leave (the millage rate) where it was and basically live off whatever growth the digest had," Ewing said Tuesday.

Ewing said he will not vote for the 10.9 "rollup" rate, because he said several business owners have told him the rate will hurt them.

"Agriculture, business and industry cannot stand a tax increase right now. I had two people in my office this morning, and two stop me at post office, saying we sure hope you hold the line," he said.

Chairman Kathy Morgan said she doesn’t believe there is a right budget, but at the same time the rollup rate makes the most sense to her.

She said if the county costs more than $55 million to run in FY2009 and more than $48 million in this fiscal year, then either the county budget was overinflated or the projected $43 million budget with a 9.73 millage rate is not sufficient. It’s probably somewhere in the middle, but it can’t be both ways.

She said if the county should only provide $43 million in services, then it probably overcharged residents in past years.

"It’s a difference of philosophies … I do feel that we right-sized last year. But this year (if we cut more) it will hurt," Morgan said Tuesday, noting that up to 80 sheriff’s office employees, out of a total of 285, could be cut at a 9.73 rate.

It’s possible that up to 120 out of the county’s 610 employee positions could be cut depending on which budget is approved; residents will have to decide for themselves whether this fits their budget philosophy.

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