The Liberty County Board of Commissioners on Monday held its first public hearing regarding the upcoming millage-rate adoption.
The hearing began with a presentation from county Chief Financial Officer Kim McGlothlin, who explained that 67 percent of the county’s general fund is allocated to mandatory services, which “by law, (the county) must fund.”
Mandated services include the governing body, all boards, court services, the sheriff’s department, the jail and emergency management, among others. The total cost of all mandated services for fiscal year 2015 is $17,512,762.
McGlothlin next spoke about the impact that the failure of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax has had on the general fund budget — and the consequential increase in property-tax rates. She said that the loss of SPLOST will impact the county’s general-fund revenue to the tune of $350,000, leaving total income at $25,625,045.
Additional expenses to the county’s budget stemming from SPLOST’s failure — notably $749,793 in Justice Center bond payments, as well as $711,871 in other capital expenditures including patrol vehicles, ambulances and fire gear — total $1,461,664, bringing total general-fund expenditures to $27,436,709.
The difference between the county’s total revenues and its expenditures is $1,811,664.
In order to make up the difference, the county is proposing an increase of 1.82 mills for Hinesville and 1.62 for all other municipalities and unincorporated county areas.
The county has advertised an increase of 2.029 mills for unincorporated areas, 1.839 mills for Hinesville and 1.835 mills for other municipalities, but those figures represent the increase from the rollback rate.
McGlothlin illustrated the effect of the increased rate on a home with a fair-market value of $100,000. At an assessed value of $40,000, property taxes paid at a millage rate of 12.58 would be $503. Taxes paid on the same home at a millage rate of 14.2 would be $568 — an increase of $65.
Following McGlothlin’s presentation, commission Chairman Donald Lovette opened the floor to citizens wishing to ask questions or make comments.
Local resident Orrin Nestor asked whether tax rates would go back down if SPLOST is approved in the future.
McGlothlin responded that SPLOST provides indirect tax relief to citizens by paying for capital items, including Justice Center bond payments, that otherwise would have to be funded by property taxes.
“(SPLOST has lowered taxes) whether you know it or not, by the fact that it bought fire trucks, and fire gear, and ambulances, and put roofs on buildings, and built the parks, and bought AC units for (the courthouse annex) and the jail,” she said. “(SPLOST) did save you property tax because (those items) did not have to be funded in the general fund.”
Local residents Denise Ahlgren and Angela Wilson both said the county should have done a better job of educating the public about SPLOST and the financial relief it provides to property owners.
“We didn’t hear enough about SPLOST, honestly,” Wilson said. “The word did not get out like it should have.”
Lovette responded that the county did not want to employ “scare tactics” like telling the public that their taxes would go up if SPLOST didn’t pass.
County Administrator Joey Brown added that the county is legally prohibited from campaigning for SPLOST in any way.
Although four community-wide SPLOST informational sessions were held in the months leading up to the referendum, those meetings were poorly attended.
Liberty County taxpayer Jerry Wheeler said that although he appreciates the “good services” that the county provides, he feels that tax dollars are being wasted on “palaces” like the Board of Education building and Hinesville’s city hall.
“We’ve got the prettiest judicial center I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “It’s so pretty, it makes me sick when I see how much it costs.
“I think the taxpayers don’t believe that you all have been really, really good stewards of the money.”
Wheeler went on to suggest strategies for cutting departments’ budgets, such as reducing personnel or mandating furlough days for county employees.
“There is a lot of fat that can still be trimmed,” he said.
Liberty County Clerk of Courts Barry Wilkes said he “felt compelled” to make a statement following Wheeler’s remarks.
“I don’t like being accused of not being a good steward of the taxpayers’ money, because I’ve worked very hard over the years to be one of the best,” he said.
Wilkes explained that although his office serves four separate courts — superior, state, juvenile and magistrate — he operates with seven fewer personnel members than other county clerks who serve only one court.
Wilkes also said that the new Justice Center was necessary not only because the old courthouse lacked enough courtrooms, but also because security had become a major issue.
“We’re one of few counties in the nation where we had a shooting in our courtroom,” he said, referencing an incident that occurred in the historic courthouse prior to the Justice Center’s construction.
Wheeler also asked Lovette about the county’s decision to contribute $50,000 toward the turn lane at the exit 76 interchange in Midway.
“It was an investment,” Lovette replied. “(We reasoned) that if we invested in that project, that today a McDonald’s, tomorrow another restaurant, the next day another restaurant … and then all of Liberty County would share in the proceeds that would come in from having a bustling interchange versus one that sits there almost idle.
“Unless we invest in growth, we’ll never get anywhere.”