Local News

October 3, 2012

Commissioners listen, consider tax hike

While Whitfield County officials believe they have “run a pretty tight ship” financially in recent years, residents are asking for even more cuts to avoid a steep property tax increase.

Tuesday morning about 15 people attended the first of three public hearings as the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners considers up to a 2 mill property tax increase.

Since 2008, the county’s budget has fallen from $42 million to about $35 million. Mary Thelma Norris, a Whitfield County resident, urged commissioners to slash the budget even further. She suggested commissioners require all departments to slash their budgets to cover the expected $5.2 million deficit this year. She added that most businesses have been forced to significantly cut their budgets, so the county should do the same.

“I think they should be expected to submit a budget of 15 percent less,” Norris said.

Commission Chairman Mike Babb spent about 25 minutes before the public commenting began explaining the county’s financial situation. Since 2008, he said 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.

Commissioners have not set this year’s millage rate. They are advertising a 2-mill increase. State law allows commissioners to have an increase at or below the advertised rate. The county’s current millage rate is 5.061 mills. A 2-mill jump translates to a tax rate hike of $40 per every $100,000 of assessed property value for a homestead exemption property and would be expected to balance the budget. A 1-mill increase would 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.

Other residents said the county should have instituted more furlough days for its employees this year instead of reducing the number of days off without pay. Commissioners budgeted four furlough days this year, but decided later to only require county workers to take two.

Babb said commissioners decided to rescind the final two furlough days this year because the county’s audit showed an uptick in revenue. He also said county employees had “been punished enough.” Employee benefits were cut; longevity pay, which is $60 per year of service paid out at year’s end, has been removed; there have been no raises since 2008; there has been a hiring freeze since 2009; and the county has lost about 60 employees since 2008.

County resident Linda Babb urged commissioners not to raise taxes this year because of the effect it would have on senior citizens on fixed incomes and younger residents who have been out of work. She pointed to the already large number of foreclosed homes in the county, and said a tax hike could lead to more people losing their homes. The Whitfield County Board of Education last week approved a 4-mill increase.

“How are they going to be able to handle being able to pay this money?” she asked.

 The second and third public hearings are Thursday, Oct. 11, at 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Both are in Whitfield County Administration Building No. 2, 214 W. King St. in Dalton.

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