Commissioners catch flack for millage hike

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By Tia Lynn Ivey, Managing Editor

The Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) faced harsh backlash this week from Morgan County homeowners opposing the BOC’s proposed millage rate increase. The BOC held the first two public hearings on the proposed millage rate increase on Tuesday, July 7. During the public hearings, over 40 concerned citizens showed up to oppose the BOC’s proposal, which is to raise the millage rate from 9.49 to 11.31, which amounts to a 19 percent increase.

Chief Finance Officer Lori Sayer took the floor to explain some of the misconceptions surrounding the impending millage increase. According to Sayer, state law mandates the county to advertise the millage proposal of 11.31 in comparison to the prescribed rollback rate, which is 8.862, instead of in comparison to the current millage rate, which is 9.49. According to Sayer, this creates the appearance of a 27.82 increase (from the rollback rate to the proposed rate), but since the rollback rate was never in effect, that percentage is not the actual increase taxpayers will experience from last year’s tax bill. Sayer went on to explain that while the proposed millage rate for the county is a 19 percent increase, when you factor in the Morgan County Board of Education’s (BOE) decision to adopt its rollback rate, 15.436 (down from 16.477), Morgan County taxpayers will only experience a 2.77 percent increase, as far as millage is concerned.

“We rolled our millage together with the BOE’s, because they end up being combined in the tax bill—people make one tax payment, they don’t separate out between the county, school board and municipalities,” explained Sayer. “The reality of the situation, with the BOE’s rollback rate factored in and not including the municipalities’ millage rates, the combined net increase becomes 2.77 percent—that is the total increase directly related to new millage rates.” However, citizens complained that Sayer’s figures failed to account for the countywide property value jumps seen this year, which will also contribute to higher tax bills. On a whole, Morgan County property owners, on average, experienced a 9.5 percent property value increase. Among those opposed to raising the millage rate, former county commissioner Ricky McGuinness, spoke against the BOC’s millage proposal.

“The bottom line is that we are sitting here talking about a problem with taxes—taxes we cannot reduce because we are not willing to make the hard choices, because we are not willing reduce those things that are causing these tax increases,” said McGuinness, who critiqued the BOC’s decision to up Morgan Memorial Hospital’s aid. “You made that decision, a 25-year financial commitment, and we don’t even take a vote in the county on it? And yet when we have our 5-year SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax), we are required by law and put it to a vote…I can’t imagine a time where there is so much uncertainty about health insurance, healthcare costs and health care delivery more than right now and the decision was made to support the hospital for the next 25 years without the people in this community given the opportunity to vote on it,” chastised McGuinness. “We have struggled for many years because we knew how hard it was on the community,” said Ellen Warren, BOC member. “We have worked hard to keep the millage rate taxes low…we have managed to do that for ten years and yet accomplish things like a new library, this building (BOC headquarters), the court house is renovated, and the aquatic center…we have accomplished a lot, but I think we all knew this day is coming…I don’t want to see us cut services, I think that would be a detriment to so many people.”

“Our goal after this year is to hold millage right where it is and hold our budget right where it is. We would love to do the rollback rate in the future,” added Ainslie. “If we can help it, we don’t want to do this again.” Other voices of opposition included Sonny Pennington, Dr. Fred Bell, Tommy Lawrence, Judy Lawrence, Kenneth Palmer, Eric Joyce, Pamela Long, Carol Bradley, David Moore, Kim Watts, Ben Bruce, and Fred Taylor, and Carol Vinci.

Complaints ranged from the BOC’s decision to help fund the new hospital to the jump in property values this year, from the dissatisfaction with county services to not enough tax breaks for senior homeowners, from the county’s partnership with the farmers market to farm lands covered under Conservation Use tax breaks. Sonny Pennington took issue with the BOC for “spending trends” the county embarked upon over the last few years, believing they need to further cut spending. “Cut spending…when expenses are going up faster than revenue, you have to cutback…this is not acceptable in today’s environment,” said Pennington. Dr. Fred Bell accused the commissioners of being irresponsible and secretive with taxpayer money and falling prey to “flawed figures” contrived by the Morgan Memorial Hospital Authority (MMHA).

“I am concerned about the way money is being dished out by the commissioners, it seems to be irresponsible,” said Bell. Bell especially took issue with the BOC’s decision to up MMH’s aid to $1 million per year. “Only three commissioners voted for this hospital anyway…It’s not a question of need, but a question of want. This is being pushed by the chamber of commerce. The people of this county didn’t even get a chance to vote on this…Rescind that vote and have a referendum and let the people vote. This is pure socialism. When a group of people can sit up there and draw money off the public…with no referendum and no voice from the public…I think you should rethink your position before this goes any further.” Tommy Lawrence complained that the decision to increase aid to Morgan Memorial should have put to a public vote and does not believe it’s the county’s place to get involved with a private business like the coming Farmers Market. “It’s all just getting out of hand now…My taxes went up to 40-45 percent,” said Lawrence.

Citizen Pamela Long was concerned about what this precedent of raising the millage means for the future. “What’s going to happen next year? How much more are ya’ll expecting from us? If we do a such a big jump this year, what happens next year?” asked Long. Commissioner Warren believes the future is bright for Morgan County property owners as the county anticipates a myriad of outside county tax dollars pouring in during coming years. “There are better times ahead,” said Warren. “We are looking at a broader tax-base to help with property taxes.” Warren cited the coming Farmers Market, the Mannington Mills expansion, the construction of the coming Georgia Zoo and Safari, and coming Baxter plant in Social Circle. “I can see that this will all level out within the next couple of years,” said Warren.

During the hearings, Lori Sayer presented to the public the BOC’s itemized budget, which increased by $1.4 million from the previous year, to show why the BOC believes increasing the millage rate in necessary. Sayer pointed to the rising costs in healthcare, employee benefits, and public safety equipment. Sayer also stressed that even though the millage rate is jumping up a significant amount now, the rate remained low during the worst years of the recession and will still be lower than the millage rate of 2013. “We were number one in the state of Georgia for property value decreases during those years,” said Sayer. “The Commissioners made a policy decision to keep the millage rate low during that time.” According to Sayer, that decision came at a hefty price: the depletion of the county’s fund balance, which now hovers just above the lowest legally-allowable rate. “Our fund balance has decreased over $3 million dollars, almost $4 million from its highest point in 2011….Our fund balance was at 46.5 percent at its peak. Even after the millage rate is raised, we will finish the year with only 17.24 percent in our fund balance,” said Sayer. The lowest the fund balance is permitted to drop is 15 percent of the county’s operational expenses.

Sayer also listed the ways the county has sought to save money during the recession years, including the merging of departments, cuts in staff, leasing heavy equipment, and giving employees incentives to opt out of the county’s health insurance plan. Sayer also provided the public with comparisons between 2014 tax bills and 2015 tax bills based solely on the change in the combined millage rates of the county and board of education. According to Sayer, homes worth $200,000 will incur a $56.47 increase in the coming property tax bill, homes worth $300,000 will incur $86.88 increase, and homes worth $400,000 will incur a $115.84. However, those estimates do not factor any change in property values, which have also jumped up countywide.

The third and final public hearing on the millage rate will be held on Thursday, July 23 at 3 p.m. at the BOC Administrative Building, located at 150 East Avenue in Madison. The hearing will be immediately following a vote by BOC to finalize a new millage rate.

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