Commissioners back off tax increase

Published 4:35 pm Friday, July 10, 2009

Any increase to the Decatur County property tax rate now seems unlikely, because a majority of county commissioners are now against the idea after holding the latest in a series of budget workshops on Friday morning.

Commissioner Russell Smith, who had previously planned to vote for increasing the county government’s millage rate to offset a budget shortfall, said Friday he could no longer support it due to many citizens’ concerns.

Commissioner Smith said that while he still personally believed it would be better to increase the millage rate than make budget cuts that could negatively affect county services, he planned to follow his constituents’ wishes.

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Commissioner Gary Phillips and County Treasurer Claude Shirley both said they had heard nothing but opposition to a tax increase from citizens who approached them.

Commissioners Phillips, Butch Mosely and Palmer Rich—who as chairman, cannot vote except in the event of a tie—had already said they would vote against a tax increase.

Commission Vice-Chairman Earl Perry, who spent many hours drafting and revising the budget along with Smith and County Finance Director Carl Rowland, appeared to still support increasing the county’s millage rate by 0.5 mills on Friday. Perry said statistics obtained from Tax Commissioner Don Belcher indicated that the majority of county taxpayers would pay an additional tax of $15 or less as a result of the millage increase.

Friday’s workshop, which lasted for more than three hours, ultimately resulted in commissioners and other county leaders agreeing to a combination of several budget-reducing measures. The short-term decisions include $75,000 reduction in salaries, in part by not replacing a Sheriff’s deputy who is leaving to work for another agency, thus eliminating a position; cutting costs related to non-essential training and professional conferences; looking into whether the county can reduce its fuel costs by locking in a year-round price; and applying approximately $250,000 expected to be received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for damages from Tropical Storm Fay and spring flooding to the county’s budget.

At the suggestion of Sheriff Wiley Griffin and Prison Warden Elijah McCoy, county commissioners resolved to change county policies regarding vacation and paid days off for non-salaried employees.

Griffin and McCoy both said they had to pay overtime to shift employees who have to be brought in to cover for those taking time off.

Griffin said he would like to see the rules changed so that essential staff be compensated for not taking time off, except when they scheduled it in advance, so backup arrangements could be made without incurring overtime. The Sheriff’s Office, County Jail, County Prison, Emergency Medical Service, Fire and Rescue and E-911 are the departments most likely to have their payroll and operation impacted by the change.

At the suggestion of County Administrator Tom Patton, county commissioners agreed to research the possibility of adopting new user fees to produce new non-tax revenue for the county.

Commissioner Perry suggested the county could begin charging a solid waste fee to everyone who rents or owns a residence in unincorporated parts of the county. Since Decatur County does not have mandatory garbage pickup, payment of the fee would allow residents to deposit a certain amount of household trash and other materials in county landfills free of charge over a month’s time, Perry said. He suggested the solid waste fees, if established, could be added on to residents’ electricity bills. Perry said residents who already pay Seminole Sanitation to haul away their garbage could have their monthly bills reduced after they paid a county solid waste fee.

Other new revenue could come from establishing an occupational tax for businesses in unincorporated areas, raising planning and building permit fees to match those charged by other area governments and charging a small fee for new animal licenses, said Patton, who noted a number of Georgia counties already do those things.

Rowland said it is also possible for the county government to establish taxes on sales of mixed drinks, even at establishments who already have alcoholic beverage licenses in Bainbridge.

Several commissioners expressed interest in the possibility of issuing occupational tax certificates, which they said could help the county government better ensure that sales tax and timber-cutting taxes are being paid lawfully.