Bryan County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jimmy Burnsed hesitated to use the word “compromise” Tuesday night after commissioners approved a smaller-than-proposed tax increase by a 3-2 vote.
Instead, Burnsed called the 1.25 mill hike, coupled with a $25 addition to the county’s $120 annual fire fee, the result of a consensus among commissioners that everyone should be impacted.
Initially, the county proposed a 1.5 mill raise with no fire-fee increase to cover a projected $1.6 million shortfall in the 2014 budget.
Burnsed — who called the vote one of the toughest the commission has made in his more than eight years on the board — said the input from the board’s four public hearings made a difference.
“We heard the citizens in the public hearings, and they said, ‘There are some citizens who will not be impacted by a tax increase,’ and we want to make sure that everybody’s paying their fair share,” he said.
Commissioners Steve Myers, Carter Infinger and Noah Covington voted in favor of the increase, which will go toward road projects, 911 equipment, squad cars for the sheriff’s department, a planned interchange at I-95, a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for county employees and to help replenish the county’s dwindling reserves.
The millage rate increased from 7.9 — second lowest in the area — to 9.15, which remains lower than the rate in Bulloch, Chatham, Camden, Liberty, McIntosh and Long counties.
The $25 addition to the fire fee will help shore up the county’s fire and EMS budget. The county’s overall 2014 budget is $19.7 million, up about $1.6 million from 2013.
“We had a shortfall, and we passed the expenses along to every homeowner by raising the fire fee by $25,” Myers said. “Our job now is to look over the next 12 months for a way to get a portion of that money back to our constituents.”
Commissioners Jimmy Henderson and Wade Price voted against the measure, which will boost taxes on a $200,000 home from $37.50 for those with the $50,000 homestead exemption for seniors to $62.50 for those with the $30,000 exemption, according to Tax Commissioner Carrol Anne Coleman. Those who don’t have the exemption will see taxes on a $200,000 home go up $100.
The vote followed the Bryan County school board’s action to set its millage rate at 15.537, the same as last year, during a called work session Monday night. The county’s vote also came after four public hearings over the past two weeks, each lasting at least two hours as residents gave vent to concerns about higher taxes and local government spending.
During hearings, commissioners and County Administrator Ray Pittman said the increase was necessary due to the county’s increase in rooftops, which raised the demand for services at the same time the tax digest shrank due to home values. At the same time, Burnsed repeatedly told residents they’re getting the biggest bang for the buck in terms of what they pay for services in the area.
He also noted the county’s homestead exemptions, by far the most generous in the area, annually have subtracted about $1.6 million in tax revenue from the county’s coffers.
While some who attended the meetings were vocal in their objection to any increase, others seemed to understand the county’s need to find more revenue.
Burnsed pointed to a nearly empty room at Tuesday’s county-commission meeting, saying he had expected a full house for the vote.
“I think they got the message,” he said. “I think the folks in the public hearings heard the budget items and they understood what we were trying to get across. And they wanted to get the message across to us — ‘During this coming budget year look where you can cut on that budget and where you can find new avenues of revenue,’ which is what we can do and what we will do.”
Henderson said four years ago he was among those who attended public hearings to object to proposed millage rate increases.
“I was out there and I was probably the loudest one out there,” he said. “I raised Cain. But they listened. To their credit they listened. They went up just a fraction of what they wanted to. I did the same thing at the school board, and of course they didn’t listen. After a while, I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to run.’ And I did.”
Henderson said no commissioner took the vote lightly.
“Everybody agonized over this,” he said. “We do care. We listen. We were elected to take care of the people, and that’s what we do. The majority of people out there might differ with me on that, but that’s what we try to do.”
Burnsed, 74, has said he won’t run again. He spent long hours at the last three hearings before crowds of anywhere from 15-20 in Pembroke to 70 or more in Richmond Hill, answering questions and trying to sell the county’s case.
“I appreciate the public hearings,” Burnsed said. “I appreciate the give and take, even though it was painful for all of us. It was painful for them, it was painful for us. But we heard them.”