Local News

October 12, 2012

County to hike property tax rates

Despite the objections of several residents, a conflicted and divided Whitfield County Board of Commissioners increased the county’s property tax by 1 mill Thursday night.

Chairman Mike Babb, Harold Brooker and Gordon Morehouse voted for the 1-mill increase for 2012, while Greg Jones and Robby Staten voted against it and supported no tax increase at all.

“I would love to leave it at zero, but I see the numbers coming down and just cannot go another year without an increase,” Brooker said.

The county’s current millage rate is 5.061 mills, so the increase translates into a 20 percent increase, or $20 per every $100,000 of assessed property value for a homestead exemption property. The 1-mill increase will bring in about $2.5 million to the county and leave the county with an estimated $2.6 million deficit at the end of the year.

The board advertised a 2-mill increase. State law allows commissioners to have an increase at or below the advertised rate. Commissioners voted after the third and final public hearing on the proposed tax increase.

For a few minutes during the meeting to set the millage rate, no one was sure what commissioners would do. Morehouse made the first motion for a 2-mill increase, but that motion died due to a lack of a second. Jones then motioned for no increase, which Staten seconded. But Babb, Brooker and Morehouse voted against the call for no hike. Brooker then made the final motion for a 1-mill increase, which passed 3-2.

Before offering the 2-mill increase, Morehouse said the county should be “fiscally responsible” and “honor the budget.” In late 2011, he said the county should have “slightly raised” the millage rate. Commissioners did not raise property taxes then.

The property tax increase wasn’t a complete surprise. For the past several years, commissioners have warned the public that declining sales tax revenues, falling home values and a shrinking tax digest could lead to higher taxes. In December 2011, Babb said of a potential property tax increase: “I don’t see any way around it.”

About 50 people attended the Thursday morning public hearing, but only two spoke. Some 50 people were at the evening public hearing with four speaking. The first public hearing on Oct. 2 attracted about 15 attendees.

Whitfield County resident Barrett Robbins said Thursday morning he opposed any county property tax increase. He noted that commissioners have “difficult decisions” to make, they have many unfunded mandates handed down from the state government, and thanked commissioners for their service.

However, he urged commissioners to continue cutting the county budget. He said increasing taxes will have an adverse affect on homeowners, who continue to fight against foreclosure.

“It’s time now to bow up,” said Robbins, who is in the financial services industry. “It’s time to figure out what services we are actually going to cut and do away with.”

He doesn’t mind seeing some services reduced. For example, grass on his subdivision’s right of way hasn’t been cut in months. Robbins isn’t complaining, and said someone in the neighborhood will eventually “pitch in” and cut the grass.

Robbins is also concerned about other tax increases in the county.

The Board of Education recently voted to increase its property tax rate by 27 percent, to 18.756 mills from 14.756 mils. And the county’s sales tax rate is slated to rise 20 percent on Jan. 1, 2013, when an education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) that voters approved in July takes effect. The sales tax rate will climb to 6 percent from 5 percent, and the sales tax on groceries will increase to 2 percent from 1 percent.

Expressing frustration about the county “spending money it doesn’t have,” county resident Charlie Carmichael also spoke out against a tax increase. He told commissioners a business can’t spend more money than it takes in, so local government shouldn’t either.

“The people here (taxpayers in the audience) don’t have the money to pay people here (commissioners),” said Carmichael, who spoke Thursday morning.

Dalton resident Larry Swanson decried the amount of taxes burdening taxpayers, from the federal income tax to a fishing license. He lauded the board members for their service — giving them an overall grade of an “A” — but said a tax increase would devastate the poor.

“Now is not the time to raise taxes,” Swanson said during the Thursday night hearing.

Since 2008, the county’s budget has fallen from $42 million to about $35 million. Since 2008, the county’s tax digest has dropped 22 percent, from just above $3 billion to about $2.5 billion. Sales tax revenues have fallen from a recent high of $16.5 million in 2006 to $14.5 million in 2011. Meanwhile, the millage rate has not increased in 10 years.

Jones was steadfast in his desire not to raise taxes this year.

“The school board just put 4 mills on us and times are tough,” Jones said. “It’s going to hurt people. We can make it another year without an increase. Yeah, we’ll get down in our reserves. We’ve got to be optimistic and hope things are going to get better.”

Staten said he was torn over the decision.

“I don’t want to put another 1 percent on top of the 4 mills the school board has already done,” he said.

After the meeting, Staten warned that because the county will once again operate from a deficit, services may be cut in the future. He said the county can’t continue deficit spending.

“I can’t sit here and tell you taxes won’t go up in the future,” Staten said. “That’s why I think going 1 mill today is misleading to the voters. They want 1 mill this year, then next year they have to go up 2. I don’t disagree with the stairstep of it, but drive around and see all of the empty houses and how can you do it?”

The county’s financial situation could worsen next year.

Commissioners are expected to set up special tax districts in the unincorporated parts of the county for the fire department, Joint Development Authority, library and solid waste. Also, discussions over the county’s share of the Local Option Sales Tax with the city of Dalton could result in a several million dollar reduction for the county.

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