In three 4-3 votes Wednesday night, the Liberty County Commission adopted combined millage rates of 32.3 for Hinesville property owners and 32.98 for property owners in unincorporated areas of the county and incorporated areas in all municipalities but Hinesville.
Hinesville property owners will have an additional 9.5 mills levied by the city.
Before the vote, county finance officer Kim McGlothlin spoke to the board about the county tax digest, and Liberty Regional Medical Center Chief Financial Officer Sam Johnson spoke about the hospital authority’s recommendation to raise its millage rate from 3.1 to 3.25 mills.
McGlothlin provided a brief overview of millage rates and how they are determined. She then recommended that the board maintain its three-year rate of 11.98 for those in unincorporated areas and municipalities other than Hinesville, as well as maintaining the Hinesville rate of 11.3 for the second consecutive year.
Because the county and the city of Hinesville offer some duplicated services, Hinesville residents have a lower county tax rate than those who live in unincorporated areas of the county or in other municipalities, she said. Fire protection, building inspection, library services, MACE, Mid-Coast Regional Airport and the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission are among the duplicated services.
Assuming a 95 percent collection rate, the county stands to receive $12,994,961, which would leave them about $395,267 short of the projected budget amount to be covered by property taxes. The shortfall will be covered by fund balance and funds previously received from the Office of Economic Adjustment, she said.
Commissioner Connie Thrift said she wanted the public to know that dipping into the fund balance is a rare strategy for the county and is not something the board takes lightly.
McGlothlin also explained that the county had cut an estimated $900,000 from its initial budget, and that if outstanding taxes were paid, the county would have a surplus rather than a shortfall.
After McGlothlin spoke, Johnson took the podium to explain the hospital authority’s decision to raise its millage rate from 3.1 to 3.25 mills.
“This year our request is for a slight increase in our millage …,” Johnson said. He explained that the hospital has taken on more bond debt for its future expansion and has incurred higher costs for indigent care. Increasing the millage rate to 3.25 will generate an additional $160,000 in revenue.
Further, insurance companies only are reimbursing the hospital about “50 cents on the dollar,” Johnson said.
As he concluded his presentation, Commissioner Eddie Walden grilled Johnson about the expenditures that mitigate the need for an increase.
“The deficit this year — between the amount of millage that we’re going to get and the amount of bond debt and indigent care — that’s amount $2.9 million deficit,” Johnson said.
Walden asked how long the hospital has had a $2.9 million deficit.
“We run a deficit every year,” Johnson said. “The amount of millage that the hospital gets has never been enough to cover the bond debt and the indigent care.”
“You all were showing you were in the black the last time you came before us — was that not right?” Commissioner Pat Bowen asked.
LRMC CEO Scott Kroell said the hospital runs in the black for operations.
Johnson explained a bit more about indigent care, which is charity care administered to people who meet certain income guidelines, and he conceded that the hospital does manage to make a profit in its operations budget.
Walden continued to volley questions to Johnson, asking which other areas they considered cutting in lieu of raising the millage rate.
“Without the support from the county, we’d have to cut services, we’d have to pick and choose what we can provide and can’t provide,” Johnson said, adding that the hospital has seen an increase in care that surpasses its physical capacity.
“What we’re going to do is to actually expand to accommodate part of that growth, so this $160,000 increase, all it does is just allow us to stay on some sort of financial footing,” he said.
After further discussion, Walden asked where the county chose to make its cuts, and McGlothlin responded that the county cut out its capital projects.
“Mr. Johnson, you can’t think of anything — I know you all have got a finance committee — can you think of anything you all have cut?” Thrift asked.
“We’re not buying any capital — no capital at all,” Johnson replied.
During the public comment period, no one came forward and the hearing was adjourned.
Upon returning to the regular meeting session, McGlothlin presented three resolutions to the board to adopt rates within the city of Hinesville, the unincorporated county areas and incorporated areas in other municipalities. On each resolution, the rates for multiple entities were listed separately and then in a combined total rate for taxes levied by the county, development authority, board of education, hospital authority and the state.
By law, the development authority rate is set at 2 mills, and the state’s rate is 0.25.
The Liberty County Board of Education on Monday voted to maintain its 15.5-mill rate, and the county also maintained its rates. Within incorporated Hinesville, the county rate is 11.3 mills, and it is 11.98 elsewhere in the county.
Commissioner Donald Lovette, who works for LRMC, abstained from the first resolution vote to adopt an unincorporated county rate of 32.98, resulting in a 3-3 tie with commissioners Thrift and Marion Stevens Sr. and Chairman John McIver voting in support of the increased rate, and commissioners Bowen, Walden and Gary Gilliard opposing the rate. With the 3-3 vote, the county would not be able to levy the millage because four votes are required to pass a resolution.
After the vote, County Administrator Joey Brown stepped out of the room for a moment. When he returned, he said that the vote could be recalled and that Lovette was not legally obligated to recuse himself from voting.
The chairman recalled the vote, and voted once more on the matter. This time, Lovette voted in support of the rate and the motion passed to adopt the rates with the hospital authority increase. Each of the subsequent votes for the unincorporated other rate of 32.98 and the Hinesville rate of 32.3 had the same record of support and opposition.
“The resolutions contemplated by the BoC last night were conglomerate resolutions that not only dealt with the hospital, but also the BoC, BoE, industrial authority and state-required levy,” Brown said after the meeting. “As such, Commissioner Lovette was not acting on millage solely for hospital matters, but rather the complete millage adoption as required by law.”
Next, Tax Commissioner Virgil Jones will present the proposed tax digest package to the Department of Revenue in Atlanta for approval. With the department’s approval, the commissioner can move forward with printing sample bills, and homeowners can expect to receive their assessments and bills as soon as the second week in December, McGlothlin said.