Commissioners weigh budget options

Published 4:18 pm Friday, July 3, 2009

Although Decatur County Commissioners are split equally on whether or not to increase property taxes to cover a budget shortfall, all six said they don’t like the prospect of doing so.

“No one wants to raise taxes,” Commissioner Russell Smith said at a budget workshop held at the County Administration office on Monday. “We’re between a rock and a hard place.”

While Smith and Board of Commissioners Vice-Chairman Earl Perry indicated they believed increasing the county government’s millage rate is necessary, each said that after going over the budget for dozens of hours, there appeared to be little left to cut from the county’s approximately $32 million budget.

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“We don’t have any reserves left,” Perry said. “I don’t think we should nickel-and-dime [the county’s departments] to death. It will only lead to us having to make budget amendments later on.”

Currently, the county’s millage rate, which helps calculate the property tax owed by landowners, is 8.56 mills. Decatur County Schools’ millage is 11.71 mills, and the State of Georgia gets 0.25 mills. Perry and Smith, who comprise county commissioners’ Finance Committee, have proposed raising the county’s millage rate by 0.57 mills to offset an approximately $450,000 shortfall. The shortfall is partly due to a decline in revenue due to the economic recession the United States is experiencing, as everything from criminal and traffic fines to sales tax receipts have dropped below government leaders’ expectations.

Smith, Perry and County Finance Director Carl Rowland spent numerous hours over multiple sessions reviewing the budget with the leaders of county departments. Smith said that he was pleased with how the leaders of county departments, including Sheriff Wiley Griffin—who has taken issue with commissioners’ criticism of his budget—cooperated to help reduce what was once a shortfall of more than $1 million. However, Smith acknowledged that the department leaders “didn’t leave satisfied.”

“We told them that if the economy improves in six months, we will put the money we cut back in the budget,” Smith said.

Commissioner Charles Stafford said he supported Smith and Perry’s conclusion that if commissioners as a body did not want to eliminate employee positions or reduce the quality of services they provide to citizens, that raising the millage rate was the only practical option.

“I’d rather see this county be positioned to rebound [when the economy recovers] rather than have to dig out of a hole,” Stafford said.

However, Board of Commissioners Chairman Palmer Rich said he was opposed to a rate increase that Smith calculated would result in a $23 higher tax bill for properties with a fair market value of $100,000, or a $57 higher bill for properties valued at $250,000.

While Commissioner Gary Phillips was leaning toward opposing the increase, Commissioner Butch Mosely flatly stated he will not vote for it.

Rich said the increase would be a burden to some taxpayers on limited incomes, such as retired persons and those who are disabled.

“Anytime you are raising $50 in taxes, for people living on [government benefits] you’re taking something away from them every month … those are the people I feel like I want to help look after,” Rich said.

Two statistics support Rich’s concerns.

First, that County Tax Commissioner Don Belcher said he noticed a significantly higher percentage of property owners were paying their taxes after the official deadline of last December but within the grace period before penalties begin accruing.

Second, Magistrate Court Judge Ralph Smith’s address to the commissioners last year in which he asked them to change the way mobile home tax decals are handled. Smith said he had been having to deal with people who owed delinquent mobile home taxes, some of them elderly. He said he had been forced to work out case-by-case agreements with them instead of sending those who couldn’t afford to pay off the taxes and penalties immediately to jail.