Taxes were at the forefront at the Oct. 3 Liberty County Commission meeting with presentations by Tax Commissioner Virgil Jones and the chief tax assessor, Glenda Roberts.
Commission Chairman Donald Lovette said Liberty was a “exemption-rich county and asked Roberts for to provide more information.
Roberts distributed a spreadsheet showing the large number of tax exemptions for Liberty County that take more than $250 million off the tax digest.
The tax digest is the total of taxable property in the county; removing property from the digest reduces the value of tax millage.
Roberts told the commissioners that the exemptions equal about 2.3 mills in taxes. The largest exemption is the freeport status held by 21 businesses in Liberty County. Freeport takes more than $137 million in property off the tax books.
The stock of a fulfillment center with freeport is 100 percent tax exempt from property tax. Freeport also exempts the inventory of manufacturing or producing businesses from tax. Freeport exemptions can be for 20, 40, 60, 80 or 100 percent of the inventory value; Liberty County voters chose to exempt 100 percent of property covered by freeport.
The state Department of Revenue said that more than 60 percent of Georgia’s 159 counties and a large number of Georgia cities have adopted the freeport exemption at some level.
Among the more than 20 exemptions in Liberty County several are designed to exempt property owned by disabled veterans and families or surviving spouses of fire protection and law enforcement personnel. In one example 720 veterans who are 100 percent disabled hold exemptions on property worth $37 million.
A group of exemptions are known as KDW for the last names of the state legislators who sponsored laws limiting the annual increase of taxable value: Sen. Rene Kemp, Rep. Buddy Deloach and Rep. Al Williams. Williams is still in office.
The KDW exemptions cap at 3 percent any annual increase in the taxable value of residences. The intent of the KDW exemptions is to avoid taxing people out of their homes because of increased value.
Tax exemptions are also used by lawmakers to encourage certain land uses. Conservation, forest land protection and agriculture receive various levels of exemption.
Jones told the commissioners that his staff heard from many taxpayers who asked year after year for billing during the current tax year. For 2016 billing information was available to taxpayers on Dec. 29 and bills were mailed January 5, 2017.
Jones presented a six-year history of the dates of adoption of millage rates and said the commissioners were always the last taxing authority to act. The board of education and the city of Hinesville also set millage rates for taxes that Jones collects and all three jurisdictions must complete their decisions before the tax commissioner can get notices into the mail. According to the presentation from Jones tax bills were mailed on Dec. 29 in 2011, the latest billing date except 2016.
County Administrator Joey Brown pointed out that the county commission must set an overall millage and cannot act until the school board has adopted its rate. Federal impact aid rules delay the setting of the school board’s millage until other counties’ rate is set.
Jones said his office has consolidated the 2017 digest and sent it to the taxing authorities but conversation with Brown and county Chief Financial Officer Kim McGlothlin showed that the county commission had not received the consolidated digest. Jones said he would email the digest to the county before leaving the county annex building Tuesday evening.
Jones said, “Every day makes a difference,” in the process and urged commissioners to act as early as possible.
The commissioners had a long discussion with Jody Pittman and Rob Jones of the Savannah Swim Team about the team’s proposal to use the Liberty County Recreation Department’s pool at Midway. The swim team would heat the pool and pay all related costs in return for holding practice at the pool.
The recreation board had rejected the plan and Recreation Director Jimmy Martin explained that the hours requested would conflict with recreational use of the pool. There were also concerns about paying for staffing and indirect costs.
After discussion county officials agreed to meet with representatives of the swim team in hopes of reaching a compromise. The team is considering rental of the pool in the meantime.