Commissioners split on tax increase

Published 7:35 pm Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The six Decatur County Commissioners are divided equally on the question of whether to raise property taxes to cover an approximately $450,000 budget shortfall.

An informal straw poll taken by commissioners at a budget workshop held Monday afternoon indicated that three commissioners were in favor of raising the millage rate, a numeric variable used in calculating property tax, by 0.57 mills.

Three commissioners, including board Chairman Palmer Rich—who cannot vote except in the event of a tie—voiced opposition to raising property taxes.

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Commissioners in favor of raising property taxes were Earl Perry, Russell Smith and Charles Stafford.

Joining Rich in opposing an increase were commissioners Butch Mosely and Gary Phillips. However, if a binding vote had been taken with all commissioners present on Monday, a tax increase would have been approved by a 3-2 vote, without Rich being able to vote.

Despite the apparent majority and multiple previous attempts to reduce the budget, Rich pressed commissioners to meet again Friday, July 3, at 8 a.m. to discuss the possibility of making further cuts to the budgets of those departments with the most spending: the Sheriff’s Office, County Prison, Fire and Rescue, and the Emergency Medical Service. Although the Road Department also has one of the larger budgets, commissioners agreed to exclude it from any further cuts, citing their belief that Road Superintendent Billy Leverette had already cut his budget enough.

After previously stating that Decatur County stood to lose $450,000 in annual revenue due to Georgia’s new, broader forestry conservation tax exemption, Commissioner Perry revised that estimate to about $115,000. Perry attributed the lower figure, which significantly reduced a $900,000 budget shortfall the county had been facing, due to local officials sorting through a confusion over how the state government plans to reimburse counties for their lost revenue.

Still recognizing the need to balance the county’s budget, Commissioners Perry and Smith—who comprise the commissioners’ Finance Committee—sent out a memorandum to county department leaders on June 24 to ask for their suggestions on cutting spending.

Perry said the memo was partially successful, as the department leaders’ response resulted in several suggestions being accepted and others being rejected because they were not deemed practical.

Perry said Sheriff Wiley Griffin had not responded to the memo, which had been e-mailed last Tuesday night. Among commissioners’ discussions on Monday included reducing the budgets of the Sheriff’s Office and County Prison, especially around the issue of overtime paid to county employees.

However, Sheriff Griffin said Tuesday he never received the memo and had not been contacted by any commissioner. Neither Griffin, whom commissioners believed to be out of town Monday when he actually was not due to a change in plans, nor his chief deputy, Jim Morris, had been notified about commissioners’ July 3 meeting as of Tuesday.

Mosely voiced several suggestions about departments’ budget, including an idea to outsource courtroom security to a private security firm. Other commissioners were interested in the idea; however, Sheriff Griffin said Tuesday he believed courthouse security—which is regulated closely by state law since the Brian Nichols shooting—could not be done for any less money. Griffin said deputies assigned to courthouse security are paid at a normal rate; however, sometimes the resulting loss of available on-duty men leads to overtime.

Singling out Perry specifically, Griffin criticized commissioners for forcing continued budget cuts and depriving county employees of a raise this year while in his opinion, making other decisions that led to significant spending.

According to the Sheriff, the creation of six new salaried positions since 2004 now costs $275,000 annually, not including vehicle use, health insurance and other benefits.

Speaking on Monday, Perry charged Griffin with allowing overtime at his department to grow out of control to the point that three of his deputies grossed more pay than the Sheriff did last year. However, Smith and County Finance Director Carl Rowland said that in some instances, overtime at several departments was unavoidable due to unexpected bad weather, staff shortages and the nature of some employees’ work.