At the first two of three public hearings held on a county tax increase, around 50 citizens told Commissioner Rob Jones last week they want to see the county cut spending instead of raising taxes.
Business and property owner Ralph Fitts was among those commenting both Thursday and Friday at hearings. Fitts said during the Friday hearing, “People in business and people paying taxes are suffering and have tried to cut back,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone in government realizes the extent we businesses have cut back and what we have done.
“Government has grown to an entity that it’s not cutting back at the same speed we are in business. What you are doing in government is not comparable to what we are doing in homes and businesses.”
With many of the same faces showing up to comment on the proposed 9 percent tax increase for Pickens County at the two meetings, Commissioner Rob Jones reiterated earlier statements that he had no choice but to raise the millage rate this year. Jones said the recent court ruling against the county over the tax exempt status of the Young Life camp cost $400,000, and also that declining property values played a part in forcing him to raise the millage rate by .64 mills to a total county millage of 6.9.
Jones pointed out that the county has not raised taxes in several years.
Jones reaffirmed several times during the two hearings that the county budget is “essentially the same” as previous years, but the $400,000 Young Life settlement left him no choice but to raise taxes.
“I had planned on keeping it where it was in the past,” Jones said Thursday evening. “But with the settlement with Young Life I had to raise it.”
County Chief Financial Officer Mechelle Champion also affirmed that the county was “tracking along just fine until we got the Young Life settlement.”
A third meeting on the tax increase will be this Friday at 9:30 a.m. in the County Admin building, and many of those who spoke at both the Thursday and Friday hearings indicated they would be back again.
The increased millage will add $22 of property taxes per $100,0000 of assessed value on a homesteaded house.
The county budget shows county officials anticipate collecting a total of $9,712,593 from the 6.9 millage rate, an amount $656,694 more than last year. The total tax increase and the math behind it was questioned extensively during the Thursday hearing with fairly complex answers involving state reporting requirements and other issues involving mills being worth less this year than last.
Gary Copeland, one of the largest property owners in the county, said the 9 percent increase will have a great impact on him and other business owners. Copeland said a 2 percent cut to every county department would be enough of a savings that the tax hike would not be needed.
“Rather than put the burden of better than 9 percent on us, wouldn’t it be better with a 2 percent cut across the board [in every county department]?” Copeland asked.
Commissioner Jones responded that he has cut for the past two years to keep the spending in line with the lower tax digests. “This year I can’t keep [cutting],” he said. “We have cut as far as we can go.” He noted that many departments are running with drastically smaller staffs, including the road department.
In an exchange during the Friday meeting, Commissioner Jones said the county had trimmed all they could, to which a woman in the audience said, “Homeowners have trimmed as much as they can also.”
Ken Pint, who owns commercial property in Jasper, said he felt the tax burden is particularly unfair on some people who have seen the tax board raise the values of their properties at a time when commercial properties are generating less in rental fees and not staying occupied. “My property values were increased even though the revenue from the properties peaked five years ago, and has been dropping since then,” Pint said. “I don’t see how he can double my property values one day and now want another ten percent [from this tax increase].”
Pint returned for the Friday meeting, stating that business owners can’t raise prices when they need more revenue like the county does with taxes. He said all businesses can do is cut spending. “The county has to bite the bullet and find some way to cut costs,” he said.
Copeland was also back on Friday reiterating a point made by another speaker that, “What we have isn’t a taxing problem, we have a spending problem,” he said. “We have to downsize this government. We need to cut back everywhere possible or we’ll be right back here again next year.”
While most of the comments were directly related to the budget or millage, a sizeable number of the speakers took the opportunity to criticize or ask for disciplinary action against the Board of Assessors (BOA) and their staff concerning the lawsuit.
In explaining the settlement, Commissioner Jones said the resulting penalty could have been in the millions, but Young Life had been agreeable and agreed in mediation to only re-coup $400,000, the amount they paid in taxes after first filing their tax exempt status.
One speaker said that if they had made a mistake at work that put their company on the line for a possible $2 million lawsuit, they would be fired. “Will there be some disciplinary action?” the speaker asked.
In Thursdays’ meeting, Jones responded several times that any one who has issues with the BOA staff should take it up with the board of assessors. Jones noted that he had appointed three new faces to the five-person board and indicated that this lawsuit was one of the reasons he made a change.
“I have no control over the chief appraiser,” he responded to several complaints about that office. Gary Copeland refuted these comments at one point, noting that the hearing is to discuss the budget and the spending, not the BOA. He said even if every member of the BOA is changed, and they lower every property owner’s value, the county will still need the same amount in taxes to fund their programs. It’s spending not taxing which is the problem, he said.
County Attorney Phil Landrum, who was present at the Friday hearing defended the BOA and their legal counsel saying that they had an excellent case. He said during the years the case drug on, a decision on a lawsuit elsewhere in Georgia changed rules regarding tax exempt status. He said if that case hadn’t occurred, he thought the local BOA stood a great chance of winning. The suit boiled down to how many acres of the multi-million dollar Christian camp was exempt from property taxes.
Jones said during discussions about the lawsuit, which has drug on for more than ten years, trying to get information from the previous BOA “was like pulling teeth.” He said he had been forced to pay the bills but wasn’t able to offer input until the case arrived at mediation of the final settlement, and then both the Young Life representatives and BOA, with its new members, had to agree for the county to join in the mediation.
The county ultimately will pay back $400,000 to Young Life, and that includes all back taxes and legal fees. That amount is the final settlement on this suit, Jones said. At the Thursday meeting, Jones was asked repeatedly about how much the BOA legal fees totalled for the case, and he could not answer at the meeting. At the start of the Friday meeting, CFO Champion said she had totaled it up overnight and the amount was $58,680.