Property taxes in Liberty County are on the rise, and residents will have the chance to weigh in today at public hearings for both the boards of commissioners and education.
The hearings, which are required by law, have prompted discussion: Can citizen opposition thwart the impending hikes?
Hinesville resident Mike Sebek, a military retiree who oversaw legal administration budgets during his time in service, is among those to offer his thoughts.
“My bottom-line reaction to the increases is that I wish they weren’t necessary, and I’m not convinced that they are,” he said. “Public hearings are useful, but from the reporting I’ve seen in the Courier, those who attend aren’t satisfied by the answers given or their opportunity to speak and are more discouraged by local-government actions than they were before their attendance at the meetings.”
But while it’s easy to point fingers at the government and call upon examples of “local governments gone wild,” Sebek said there may be things community leaders know about expenditures that ordinary citizens may not understand.
“You elect your government officials to act on your behalf, and you have to allow them some latitude in how they get the job done,” he said. “But they probably need to do a better job of informing the public of the tangible benefits (even if they are projected) of those things that look like frivolous spending or boondoggles.”
Without those explanations, it appears as though entities are trying to conduct “business as usual as if it were boom times, when they should be living within budgetary means and scaling back their ambitions in austere times,” Sebek added.
Bloggers on CoastalCourier.com expressed ire at the rates and frustration that little can be done.
“We cannot stop these guys! They are going to cram it down our throats,” commenter JimmyMack wrote.
Another blogger, PoliticsNation, urged residents to petition entities, citing a model that reportedly was successful in Austin, Texas. When messaged for comment, however, the user did not respond.
When asked whether citizen input would affect the rates adopted, Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown and Liberty County School System Assistant Superintendent Jason Rogers both said their boards would take comments under advisement before voting.
Neither Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas nor City Manager Billy Edwards responded the Courier’s request for comment.
BoC says constitutional offices inflate budget
The county administrator said Wednesday he has not received any direct comments on the proposed millage rates for residents in incorporated and unincorporated areas.
When asked whether the county has considered private-sector solutions — such as downsizing personnel or pay cuts — to weather the revenue shortfall, Brown said the county already has done so.
“Over the last three years, we have eliminated several positions and have deferred filling others,” he said. “We have also reduced budgets for which we have control. We have also considered furloughs.”
He added that the BoC only controls about one-eighth of the total allocation of costs in the personnel budget, as constitutional officers are in charge of the rest.
Those officers — such as the sheriff, clerk of courts, district attorney, public defender and judges — are required by law to meet constitutional service provisions that govern their hours of operation, Brown said.
“One furlough day for departments controlled solely by the BoC is worth approximately $12,000, while costs associated with departments beyond their control is worth approximately $30,000,” he said.
Mandated services make up 68 percent of the current budget, 38 percent is essential services such as fire protection and recreation, and 2 percent of the budget is discretionary, he added.
During a previous meeting, the board discussed the possibility of allocating Office of Economic Adjustment funds to offset any shortfall in budget revenue.
Brown said in a Wednesday email that those funds are allocated for capital purchases only.
In response to questions about whether capital projects have stretched the county’s budget, Brown noted that the funding for capital projects comes from a separate SPLOST budget that can only be applied toward capital projects and is not able to be diverted to the general fund.
Asked whether any of the new facilities require increased operating costs, Brown gave a limited answer: “The only facility that has opened this year was the old courthouse following renovations. Costs of operation of that facility will actually be less than previously expensed due to the use of an energy efficiency grant in the facility.”
BoE cites state cuts, insurance hikes
The LCSS assistant superintendent who oversees finances also said he has not received any direct comments on the proposed rate.
“I think sometimes citizens may understand our increase a little bit more than the other entities because they understand the majority of our funding comes from the state, and they are aware of how state funds have been cut to local districts,” Rogers said.
After years of teacher furloughs, the Liberty County School System this year reinstated a full calendar — but Rogers has provided several public updates on the district’s financial situation to explain the need for an increase.
According to the Quality Basic Education funding formula, the state has withheld almost $31.5 million from the local district, he said.
Categorical grants, such as for transportation, also have dwindled.
To combat the shortfall, the district is considering three employment scenarios for the 2013-14 school year. One would call for zero furlough days; another sets three furlough days, and the most aggressive is six.
Rogers said the district also is looking to streamline district operations through reassessing the need for positions, filling vacancies with existing staff and analyzing bus routes for possible reductions.
And there’s another layer: In order to maintain its current level of federal impact aid funding, the board must establish a millage rate that is 95 percent or greater than the state education millage average. Liberty BoE’s proposed rate is 16 mills.
The Georgia School Superintendents Association has been tracking that data. Numbers released Monday indicate that the average is 15.98 mills — and the average has risen for three consecutive years.
“The average rate across the state has risen dramatically over the last couple of years, a real sign of how systems are being forced to raise rates to compensate for the seemingly never-ending state cuts,” GSSA Executive Director Herbert Garrett said.
The rate decreased in 2006 and 2008, but otherwise has been on an upward trajectory. It was 14.886 in 2008, 15.062 in 2009, 15.41 in 2010 and 15.68 in 2011.
Rogers said state-mandated increases in health-insurance coverage costs for classified staff members — such as cafeteria workers, bus drivers and paraprofessionals — are another factor precipitating the tax increase.
Between 2012 and 2013, that cost will increase from $1,192,067 in the current fiscal-year to $1,711,947 projected. It is expected to exceed $2 million the following year.
Rogers added that taxpayers should not look at an isolated millage rate when comparing their taxes with those in other areas. Rather, they should consider how much revenue they are contributing per pupil, he said.
“For example, for fiscal year 2012, when you compare the amount of local revenues received per pupil, Liberty County was the 34th lowest in the state (159 other entities relied more on local revenues than our district),” he said.