No tax increases this year, county says

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By Tia Lynn Ivey

managing editor

The Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) unveiled a proposed total budget of $22.7 million for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, which will allow the board to take the rollback millage rate and forgo raising property taxes. The rollback millage rate is tentatively set at 11.187 mills, decreasing by .12 mills from the current fiscal year. The current preliminary digest is showing a 1.10 percent increase in assessed property values throughout the county. The proposed county budget is increasing by $776,394 from this year’s budget. The general fund budget is proposed at $16.6 million, increasing by a little over $198,000 from this fiscal year.

“We are very excited to be able to take the rollback rate this year,” said Michael Lamar, County Manager.

“The most exciting thing about this budget is that there will be no property tax increase,” said Lori Sayer, chief finance officer for the county.

However, avoiding a property tax increase comes at a cost in county services. According to Sayer, over $31,000 in requested funds from outside county agencies, including the health department, the chamber of commerce, the Morgan County Library, the Victims Witness Advocate and the Advantage Behavior program, had to be denied in order to keep the county budget low enough to take the rollback rate.

“These were not unreasonable requests,” said Sayer. “But to get to the rollback rate, these are some of things we had to cut, or not have, to get back to the rollback rate.” said Sayer.

Commissioner Ellen Warren was disappointed that the county budget could not grant the health’s department’s funding request.

“They have done a great service with things like teen pregnancy in our community and they have been without these additional employees for about eight years,” lamented Warren. “If things look up next year, I would like to look at that again for them.”

Additional expenditures added to the proposed FY 2017 budget include $120,000 for the purchase of three vehicles for the Sheriff’s Department, $9,540 for the purchase of Easy Vote upgrades for Board of Elections, $15,000 to replace laptops for road deputies, $25,000 for Microsoft Office and mail exchange upgrade, and $20,000 for Firefighter turn out gear replacement. Other expenditure increases include a 6 percent health insurance premium increase in the amount of $62,000 dollars, $146,800 in unfunded health insurance benefits from last year, $58,562 for state-mandated salary increases for elected officials, $103,000 for a Defined Benefit Retirement Plan, and $84,631 for other professional and purchased services. The budget also reflects some significant decreases in expenditures, including $120,029 less in Capital Outlay costs and $136,753 in savings on supplies and fuel for the year.

Additional revenues for the county’s proposed budget include $153,685 in grants, $28,533 from the Forest Land Protection Act, $23,500 in license and permit fees, $60,000 from an Insurance Premium Tax. But the county also lost some revenue, including a $41,250 decrease in Court Fees and Charges and a $26,247 reduction in penalty fees for late payments on property taxes.

Commissioner Philip Clack was concerned that the proposed budget didn’t include any funds to replenish the county’s dwindling fund balance, which currently hovers at 16.16 percent. The state recommends the fund balance being between 15 and 25 percent. In previous years, the county’s fund balance had been as high as 46 percent, but shrunk after years of economic downturn that forced the county to dip into it.

“As a citizen, it’s great that we are not raising taxes, but as a county official, we are not doing anything for the fund balance. I would love to be able to put some money in this fund, since we have in the past survived on it and now we are at the point that we cannot touch it because we’ve let it drop so low,” said Philip Clack.

According to Sayer, she hopes to restore funding to county agencies and invest money back into the fund balance in coming years as they anticipate the tax digest to grow with the additions of Mannington Mills, Farmview Markets, Shire/Baxalta, and the coming Georgia Zoo and Safari Park. But this year, Sayer believed it to be imperative to keep the budge low enough to take the rollback rate on account of the drastic millage rate increase last year. The BOC endured a harsh backlash last year from Morgan County homeowners who opposed the BOC’s steep millage rate hike, which jumped the millage rate up from 9.49 to 11.31, which amounted to a 19 percent increase.

“It’s not a perfect budget, but it will work for us,” said Sayer.

The BOC will hold a public hearing on Tuesday, June 14 at 5 p.m. in the county administration building, located at 150 East Washington Street in Madison.

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