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June 4, 2013

No public feedback at budget hearing

Property tax rate to remain the same

The “heartbeat of the community” is out of rhythm after the “shock” of a property tax rate increase last October, said Whitfield County Tax Commissioner Danny Sane.

Sane said most of the “shock” came when Whitfield County school board members voted 4-1 in September 2012 to raise the property tax rate from 14.756 mills to 18.756 mills, nearing a 20-mill cap. For a $100,000 home in the county, one mill roughly equals $40 in tax.

There was little attendance and no public comment at the school board budget hearing Monday night. It was a stark difference from last year’s budget hearings where several local residents filled the room to criticize the board’s plan to increase taxes. But this time around, school board members do not anticipate raising the property tax rate.

School board members are reviewing a proposed budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins July 1. The board is expected to approve the budget at a called meeting on Wednesday, June 19, at 7:30 a.m. at the central office.

The proposed budget anticipates $99.5 million in revenue and $100.3 million in expenses, while last year’s budget expected $94 million in revenue and $97.6 in expenses. School officials have long said 85 percent of the budget is employees’ salaries and any significant cuts would mean vast layoffs.

The jump in expenses comes from rising state-enforced benefits including teacher raises, retirement, health care coverage and worker’s compensation, according to a budget summary provided by the school system.

Chief Financial Officer Ron Hale said the “good news” is the new property tax rate brought in $27 million as of April 30, $4 million more than the $23 million collected by the same time last year. The rest of the revenue comes from state funding expected to be $71.9 million after Gov. Nathan Deal signed off on restoring $6 million in funding last month.

County schools have been under-funded by the state since 2003, Hale said, totaling $71 million in funding cuts over 10 years.

“So the board had to adjust with our tax rate,” he said.

Because the value of the tax rate is tied to the health of the local tax digest, Hale said the revenue growth shows a “flat” change in county property value. Tax digest refers to the value of all property — homes, cars, offices, among other items — that’s taxed within the county.

Sane said the revenue jump doesn’t necessarily mean an “OK tax digest,” quickly clarifying he “isn’t taking aim at the school system.”

“(But) if anyone thinks the tax increase hasn’t hurt our community they are really disconnected,” he said. “It literally does impact folks. The economy is not good and people are seriously struggling. I appreciate the fact that the school board is holding the millage rate where it is and they are not going to let it go up again.”

Board members said the renewed state funding will probably prevent another property tax increase this year.

“This is better news than we were anticipating a few months ago (before the state restored some funding),” Board Chairman Louis Fordham said. “It’s amazingly better.”

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