Liberty County is $1,040,823 over budget, according to Kim McGlothlin, the county’s chief financial officer.
County department heads and constitutional officers recently attended a special meeting to discuss the budget, solutions and potential cuts.
“The commission voted to maintain the past year’s millage rate which is going to cost us to have a deficit in our revenues,” Board of Commissioners Chairman Donald Lovette said to start the Nov. 19 meeting.
There was a proposal to raise the millage rate to cover revenue lost because the tax digest decreased as a result of lower assessed values. However, commissioners approved keeping the millage rates for Hinesville, the other cities and unincorporated areas the same. The rate for Hinesville is 12.63 mills and the other cities and unincorporated areas, 13.84 mills.
McGlothlin said the total expected revenue from property taxes is $14.5 million. Assuming that 97 percent property taxes in the county were collected, the county would receive $14.1 million.
The fiscal 2016 budget adopted in June called for $27.8 million in spending. McGlothlin made adjustments to the budget to account for debts that need to be paid, purchases and liability insurance. After the adjustments, the budget was revised to $28.5 million in spending. In reviewing the revised budget, McGlothlin took into account revenues other than taxes, sale of property, an insurance premium tax increase and the purchase of an air conditioner for the Court Annex building.
“So when we reduce our budget by all of those items, that leaves us with a property tax that we need of $15.1 million. You see up here,” she said during the meeting, pointing to the budget document on the screen, “that at 97 percent we collect just a little over $14 million. We’re actually $1 million short now. When you’re looking at a million dollars shortfall, you either have to come up with a million dollars revenue or you have to cut a million dollars of your budget.”
She presented potential budget cuts that have been made in past years. Those cuts included:
- Longevity pay;
- Sheriff’s Office vehicles;
- A transport deputy;
- A fire truck;
- Trucks for animal control, road maintenance and mosquito spraying; and
- Part of an air conditioning system.
The proposed cuts would total $977,080, leaving a shortfall of $63,743, which would have been covered by the funds in reserve.
Commissioners asked McGlothlin about using the fund balance to pay for the items on the list of potential cuts. She said the fund balance cannot pay for recurring items, such as promotions, employee raises and the transport deputy. The reserve funds can pay for the other items on the list, such as the fire truck and computers.
County Administrator Joey Brown said reserve funds help during times when revenue streams are low, but if the balance gets too low, the county will have to borrow money. He suggested that the county use reserve funds for emergencies and unexpected capital expenses.
Commissioners cut the promotions, raises and transport deputy from the budget. They approved using $861,518 of reserve funds to cover the remaining expenses. This means that items such as computers, the fire truck, and VAV boxes will only get paid with reserve funds if deemed necessary. The commissioners also decided to pay for longevity pay and sheriff’s vehicles with the reserve funds.
Before deciding on this issue, commissioners and various county department heads had a long discussion about the budget.
Commissioner Marion Stevens Sr. presented his suggestions for things that could be eliminated from the budget. He said to cut out travel to Jekyll Island for the county planning workshop, sell property that the county has no intention of using, revisit tax exemptions for industries, annex housing on Fort Stewart and rescind a recently awarded contract.
Glenda Roberts, the chief appraiser of the county Tax Assessors’ Office, addressed some of Stevens’ suggestions. The Freeport Exemption is a tax exemption on the inventory of industrial companies. Liberty County has a 100 percent Freeport tax exemption. Roberts said the exemption was passed by voters in the 1990s and that it does not have to be 100 percent, but it can be lower.
Commissioner Justin Frasier agreed with Stevens that the exemption needed to be addressed. He said there are industries that have been in the county for a long time and are still getting exemptions and hiring employees who don’t live in Liberty. Frasier encouraged the other commissioners and department leaders to think of other ways to generate revenue.
Liberty County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jon Long talked about patrol vehicles being a necessary item to purchase. He gave the commissioners a list of 15 patrol vehicles that, as of Sept. 1, had more than 100,000 miles.
“We’ll continue to answer those calls. We’re going to keep driving those cars until the wheels do fall off, but I can tell you under the authority of Sheriff (Steve) Sikes, they won’t be answering those calls as fast as they would have,” Long said.
Those cars, he explained, will no longer be involved in any high-speed chases or use radar to catch speeding motorists.
The Sheriff’s Office asked for six patrol vehicles, which was reduced from the request of nine vehicles during initial budget talks earlier this year. Frasier felt that the purchase of sheriff’s vehicles could wait until next year’s budget or be covered by the Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax if voters approve the referendum in November. His other suggestion was to reduce the number of vehicles to three. All six vehicles would be paid with the reserve funds.
McGlothlin talked at the meeting about the effect of SPLOST not passing last year.
“When the voters went to the polls and voted no on SPLOST, the consequence of that is that those costs for the patrol vehicles, for the ambulances, for the debt service on the Justice Center, for the capital needs of the park, of the road department — those expenses are now going to be (borne) on the property owners. So instead of sharing those costs, defraying those costs among 60,000 to 75,000-plus people, it’s now going to be between” 14,000 and 15,000 people, McGlothlin said.
She went on to say that because the millage rate was not raised to accommodate the decreased digest, residents will not believe that there was a consequence for that rejection of SPLOST.