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County approves tax increase in split vote

Liberty County commissioners adopted a millage rate for 2023 — but many residents let them know they were not happy with the decision.

Commissioners voted 4-2 to enact a millage rate of 21.14 for the unincorporated portions of the county and six of the municipalities. The county’s millage rate for Hinesville residents will be 18.51.

The county was hit with a property insurance premium that was $1.8 million higher than previous.

“That was unexpected and completely out of our control,” county chief financial officer Samantha Richardson said.

It also enacted a salary study to bring county employees’ pay in line with neighboring counties and approved merit and longevity pay, totaling $3.4 million between the new salaries and other pay.

The county’s budget for fiscal year 2024 is nearly $58 million, up almost 17% from FY23’s $49.5 million.

Nearly 50 people were in attendance at the third and final hearing Thursday for the millage rate — the state mandates that taxing authorities hold three hearings when they are not going to the rollback rate, the rate that would offset the rise in property values to keep property taxes level — and several questioned why there was a need for property taxes to go up by 35%.

While the county had to advertise a 35% property tax increase, Richardson stressed that wasn’t the case. The stated tax increase is not based on what property owners paid last year, but was based on taxes projected from the millage rollback rate.

“It does not reflect the actual increase we expect to see,” she said.

Property owners also can use the homeowners tax relief grant this year, but that is only a one-time reduction, Richardson said.

Property taxes remain the county’s single largest source of revenue, Richardson said, and public safety is the largest of the expenditures.

“Protecting our citizens is one of the biggest priorities of the commissioners,” she said.

But while the overall property tax digest grew substantially, so did the value of the exemptions, outpacing the growth of the digest. Three exemptions — freeport, disabled veteran and the Kemp-Deloach-Williams Act — make up 80% of the exemptions.

“This year, we have had the single largest year growth in exemptions,” Richardson said.

She also pointed out the budget has cut $625,000 that was set aside for hiring new firefighters.

But property owners who spoke at the last two public hearings were adamant that the commissioners find some way to provide them more relief.

“It’s getting very difficult,” said Rhonda Durney, who retired from teaching in 2010. “I do not understand why that after five years everything is increasing, increasing, increasing.”

“I hope you don’t increase my taxes any more,” added former pastor Mike Cowart. “It’s tough at 72.”

Several residents said the taxes are toughest on senior citizens, and commission Chairman Donald Lovette pointed out that most of the commissioners are retired.

“We are always conscious of the seniors — a trip to the grocery store ain’t what it used to be,” he said. “We never look forward to increasing the millage.”

Residents also implored commissioners to look at their spending and see what further cuts could be made.

“We are concerned with the amount. This increase will impact all of us,” Greg Nelms said. “We’re not the wealthiest county in the state of Georgia. Small businesses may suffer. Eventually home sales may weaken and they may to go neighboring counties. We need to sharpen those pencils. But something is wrong. You must reconsider this millage rate increase.”

Martha Dykes called the proposed increases “frightening,” especially for senior citizens.

“We citizens don’t think you’ve done a really good job,” she said. “We think you need to revisit the avenues of must-haves again. Us citizens and us senior citizens are having a difficult time trying to make ends meet. You are proposing to squeeze us and suffocate the very life out of the very ones who bring life to Liberty County.

“People are afraid,” Dykes added. “They are afraid of losing their homes, of losing their property. We are overburdened by this economy and you want to raise our taxes.” Randall Edwards also complained about the millage rate hike. “I have never in my life heard of tax increases like this,” he said. Jim Waldrop, an east end resident, asked commissioners what was in the tax increases for the residents.

“The only thing I get out of this county is almost run off the road once a week at least by those damn dump trucks going 70 miles an hour,” he said. “It’s a good place to live. We can do a lot better than what we’re doing.”

Chairman Lovette said commissioners took another look at the budget after receiving the digest and already had cut several million dollars from the original departmental requests.

“We’ve looked, we’ve cut,” Commissioner Connie Thrift said. “We try to stretch that money as far as we can. We’re growing by leaps and bounds. We were really looking for that digest growth and it came and so did some unexpected things that have to get paid for.”

Former commission chairman John McIver also pleaded with the commissioners on behalf of older residents.

“A lot of citizens who have property just refuse to pay it. Some of them cannot pay it,” he said. “We have to think about senior citizens, on fixed income, and those incomes are not increasing as the county increases property taxes. They have exhausted their exemptions.

“Let’s start looking at other sources of revenue that could possibly offset the cost of operation of some of the things you are doing.”

Commissioner Marion Stevens asked county staff to look at what the county charges in permits and fees, saying those figures are much lower than in other nearby counties.

Stevens also cited the cost of the county bringing aboard EMS from Liberty Regional Medical Center.

Tammy Mims, CEO for Liberty Regional Medical Center, said the millage rate the hospital levies did not go toward operating EMS. Instead, that money is used to pay for the uncompensated and indigent care the hospital has to provide.

“Our millage is for the uncompensated care for this community that we accept each and every day,” she said. “It has nothing to do with EMS and the services.”

Commissioners Gary Gilliard and Maxie Jones voted against the county millage rate adoption, and Gilliard, Jones and Stevens voted against adopting the hospital authority’s proposed millage rate, putting that vote at a 3-3 standstill.

Doing so, County Administrator Joey Brown said, prevents the county from sending its millage rate certification to the state Department of Revenue, and in turn, prevents those taxing authorities from receiving any tax proceeds until that final millage is approved.

“We never received funds nor additional millage rates for EMS. We never received anything for it,” Mims said. “The hospital, in 2019, had not given raises for three years. All employees were not at market. We had over $4 million of debt from vendors we had not paid for years. We had six days of cash on hand and we had to make payroll every 14 days. We have made tremendous, tremendous improvements and saved lives during a pandemic.

“We asked for nothing more. We just dug in and did our very best,” Mims continued.

On a second request for a vote, Gilliard voted in favor of the hospital authority millage, giving it passage by a 4-2 margin.

Stevens asked county staff to see if it could get a better rate on health insurance — Brown pointed out the county used a broker, who searched a range of firms for a price on property insurance — and said the industries here in Liberty County and moving in, many in his district, need to start offsetting the county’s costs.

“These industries must and will have to start paying their fair share,” he said. “It will help us out with fire, EMS, sheriff ’s office and infrastructure.”

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