Several taxing entities within Liberty County are stalled in the process of establishing their property-tax rates due to a delayed tax digest.
And while the digest, or assessed totals of all property listed within a tax district, is late for a second straight year, Liberty County Chief Appraiser Glenda Roberts said an outside vendor issue is to blame.
“For the most part, the process is working; it’s just that the process this year is just taking longer than even we anticipated because of the fact that the tax commissioner has gone with a new vendor this year,” Roberts said.
She said a computer glitch by vendor Thomson Reuters, formerly Manatron, resulted in a $69 million discrepancy from the assessments the assessors’ office generated in May.
“Their calculations of the total exemptions are not matching up to what my data says…,” Roberts said. “In a nutshell, we’re trying to iron out why the application of the homestead exemptions and other exemptions, how they’re applying a greater exemption than what should typically be allowed.”
While she did not want to speculate on any potential trends in the digest until the numbers are finalized, Roberts said her best-case scenario would be finalizing the consolidation sheets by Friday, which would still allow entities to adopt their millage rates in late November and early December, which is around the same time they did last year.
Until then, taxing entities are left in the dark about whether the digest will show growth or devaluation, a factor that helps them project how much revenue can be generated.
Last week, the Hinesville City Council approved a $36 million budget with the assumption it will have to raise its rate of 9.5 mills — though the exact impact on the millage rate will not be known until the digest is released.
Board of education eyes millage
The Liberty County Board of Education also has been waiting to see what the digest will produce, though the board typically waits until November to establish its millage rate to ensure it qualifies for federal impact aid.
The Liberty County School System’s financial officer, Assistant Superintendent Jason Rogers, said during a called meeting last week that he likely will present the board with three scenarios that reflect two degrees of change to the millage rate and a scenario to retain the rate of 15.5 mills.
But to qualify for federal impact aid at the same level it currently receives, the BoE must set a millage rate that is 95 percent or more than the current state average for education millage rates, Rogers said.
He reported Tuesday that the Georgia School Superintendents Association is tracking district moves, and the most recent data shows a state average of 17 mills — though he added that some districts that typically set lower rates had not yet reported their rates.
Still, 95 percent of 17 mills is 16.15 mills, so unless the state average declines, the board may be forced to raise its millage rate to continue receiving federal impact aid, which accounts for between $8 million and $9 million of annual LCSS revenue.
Because of the significance of impact aid, the board also has kept a keen eye on the threat of sequestration. Rogers predicted last week that if the digest remains the same and sequestration does not take effect, the district will be OK this year.
However, such results could have a heavy impact on future budget years because the district operates on fund reserves each year from about July through December — when revenue is not coming in — and drawing the reserves down too low could give the district poor footing for the next fiscal year.
In a the Oct. 18 called meeting, board chairwoman Lily Baker and members Marcia Anderson, Becky Carter and Charlie Frasier each said they would hate to be forced to increase the millage, but they acknowledged that the burden would be even greater if they lost their federal recipient status as a “heavily impacted” community.
County, others in the mix
As for the county millage rates, Liberty County Finance Officer Kim McGlothlin said her department cannot move toward establishing a rate until it gets the consolidation sheets.
“As soon as we get them, we will start crunching numbers and the finance committee will meet,” she said, adding that the numbers will determine whether rates are affected and the number of public hearings the county must hold.
The 2011 rate was 11.98 mills for county residents in unincorporated areas and 11.3 mills for those within Hinesville limits.
One component of a recent agreement between the county and the city of Hinesville for distribution of local option sales-tax revenue requires the county to roll back the millage for incorporated Hinesville residents to prevent them from being double-taxed for duplicated services.
When asked whether reducing the county millage for Hinesville residents could result in increased rates for those in unincorporated areas, McGlothlin said it is possible, though it will not be determined until the digest is complete.
“We are cautiously optimistic that we can get consolidation sheets this week or next week,” McGlothlin added. “I do know that Mr. Jones and Ms. Roberts are working diligently with the new software provider in trying to make sure that they pick up all of the exemptions properly and have everything balanced.”
The Liberty County Hospital Authority plans to maintain its millage rate of 3.25 mills, according to Liberty Regional Medical Center Chief Financial Officer Sam Johnson.
Although the hospital authority raised the millage last year from 3.1 mills, Johnson said Tuesday that they do not anticipate raising the rate this year regardless of what the digest produces.
The Liberty County Development Authority has a state-mandated rate of 2 mills, and the state collects .25 mills.