Property taxes in Liberty County are edging up, after commissioners adopted a slightly higher millage rate for the unincorporated portions of the county.
Commissioners did not change the county millage rate charged to city of Hinesville residents, leaving it at 14.8 mills. For the unincorporated areas of the county, and the other municipalities, the new millage rate is 17.4, an increase from the previous year’s levy of 16.6 mills.
The millage rate for Hinesville is lower because of the overlapping services the city and county provide to services.
Over the last five years, Liberty County’s general fund budget has grown from nearly $30 million to $48 million. Its spending on public safety, which includes fire services and EMS, now under the county’s operation, has gone from $12 million in FY 2020 to more than $24.3 million in the current fiscal year.
County chief financial officer Kim McGlothlin said that is indicative of the commitment commissioners have made to public safety.
“We are standing up a full-time fire fighting service,” she said. “We took over EMS. We expanded (the sheriff ’s office) force significantly as well.”
McGlothlin said that has meant more than 100 new employees and additional expenses for the county.
While the county’s net digest has grown from just over $1.2 billion to $1.54 billion in 10 years, the total exemptions has nearly doubled, from $192 million in 2013 to $381 million in 2022.
Resident Bob Sprinkel said the taxes and increasing property values may force him out of his home eventually.
“I love Liberty County,” he said. “But it’s getting hard.”
Sprinkel, a former assistant county administrator, praised the commissioners for their tasks as stewards of taxpayer money. Rising property values, and rising millage rates, are making it hard on those on fixed incomes, he said.
“I didn’t realize how hard it was when you don’t have anything extra coming in, and you don’t fit into the rich exemptions we have, when our taxes do go up, it makes it difficult,” he said. “When you work hard all your life and you’re able to accumulate a nice house, able to accumulate a decent lifestyle, I can tell you right now, in three to five years, I’m going to have to leave Liberty County. I’m being taxed out of my house. I’ve done the math. I have found a year yet where my property didn’t go up. When your property values go up, your taxes go up and it becomes difficult.”
Sprinkel asked commissioners to urge the Liberty County Board of Education to look at property tax breaks for those 70 and older.
“That could make a huge difference for someone who is truly on a fixed income,” he said.
County department heads also are being asked to curb spending as much as possible. While property taxes are expected to bring in about $24 million, McGlothlin pointed out the county needs $28 million in property tax proceeds. The county is looking at potentially saving about $2 million in one-time expenses and capital purchases that may get postponed.
“We just have to tighten our belt,” Commissioner Eddie Walden said. “We can’t continue on the way we’re going on.”
Sprinkel also asked commissioners to “think outside the box.”
“You’ve got to pay for your ambulances,” he said. “You’ve got to pay for your fire. You’ve got to pay for your police. I’m not saying cut your taxes — the money has to come from somewhere.”
For several years, the county has attempted to maintain a fund balance to allow three to seven months of county operations to proceed without any revenue coming in.
McGlothlin added that Hinesville’s lowered millage and a cut in the school board’s millage will lead to lower property tax bills within the city. A home with a fair market value of $150,000 will pay $51 less in property taxes and a home with a $250,000 fair market value will pay $85 less in property taxes. Outside the city, the property taxes on a $150,000 home are slated to go up $9 and to go up $15 for a $250,000 home.
Chairman Donald Lovette cautioned against comparing millage rates with other counties, since some, such as Chatham County, impose fees for such services as fire protection. Lovette said the county needs to continue to push for further economic development.
“We have focused the last couple of years on public safety, and it was needed,” Commissioner Justin Frasier said. “It’s time for us to hammer out a plan for economic development, like yesterday.”