Commissioners Rob Jones, Becky Denney and Jerry Barnes look over figures at last Thursday's public hearing on taxes. They are expected to vote on the increase this week.
The public made it clear they do not approve of a proposed tax hike to give the county an additional 13 percent in operating funds during two meetings at the county administration building Thursday. The meeting was required for any government seeking a tax increase, with a final hearing this Thursday, Sept. 15, at 5 p.m. and the commissioners expected to pass the increased millage in a meeting directly afterwards at 5:30 p.m.
This move would raise the county millage to 8.2, up from 7.22 last year.
If approved, the tax hike would give the county $11.2 million in taxes to fund the 2016 budgets, up from $9.8 million last year.
Both the morning and evening public hearings ran around two hours before Commission Chair Rob Jones brought them to ends with speaker after speaker indicating they were fed up with property tax increases.
Local business owner Ralph Fitts said during the morning meeting that every time the public comes to a meeting here it’s a tax increase. “When does it stop?” Fitts asked. “Where is that line that enough is enough?”
Another speaker in the evening session said there is a room full of people and they were there because they were angry. The speaker blamed public officials for not planning ahead and budgeting better.
“We are getting hit with an unacceptable tax increase. I’m not sure what the problem is, but it is unacceptable,” the speaker said.
One speaker, Steve Griffin, directly asked the three-person board of commissioners to not approve the full 1 mill tax hike when they vote Thursday. “Cut the 1 mill to a half mill or some other amount,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to eat the whole apple in one sitting.”
Commissioner Becky Denney said she along with Chairman Jones and Commissioner Jerry Barnes would continue to “tweak it” this week.
Although a separate subject, many area senior citizens used the hearings to call for senior property exemptions for Pickens County. One speaker said the seniors of this county “are getting dumped on.”
According to figures presented at both sessions, the increased millage this year comes from higher budget requests by most all departments. County Finance Director Faye Harvey cited these budget increases at both meetings: Sheriff $548,000; Judicial $253,000; Public Works $243,000; Fire/EMA $159,000; General government $120,000; planning and development $44,000; Culture/recreation $44,000.
Even with the lengthy meeting it was hard to trace exactly where the increases were coming from [see further article on the numbers in this week’s print edition].
A few items were mentioned including outfitting expenses for a planned new fire station in southwest Pickens [the station itself will be built with sales tax funds]. A new piece of equipment for the road department; a $52,000 digital fingerprinting system for the Probate Judge which will pay for itself in fees; some training and minor expenses in the Clerk of Court office where a new clerk will take office in January.
The one area where some members of the public appeared to give reluctant agreement with more spending was in response to a presentation by Sheriff Donnie Craig who asked for an additional $400,000 to fund needs at the county jail.
Craig, the only official to detail his needs at length, said the 10-year-old jail needs repair and improvements and he will have to budget more for medical treatment of inmates.
Craig said medical services (which includes mental health issues) are expected to rise from $125,000 this year to $270,000 and possibly as high as $310,000. Craig said regardless of what people feel about inmates, the sheriff’s office is federally required to meet basic food and medical needs or the county facility could be placed under strenuous federal mandates.
A couple of speakers responded they didn’t feel the inmates were entitled to three meals a day and healthcare. Craig said when busy his deputies might not get three meals in a day, but they are duty-bound to feed the prisoners (costing $4.59 a day per inmate for the three meals).
Craig also explained that in the past year, he has begun a contract with the city of Sandy Springs where Pickens houses their non-violent prisoners charged with misdemeanors for $40 per inmate, per day. This is projected to make $600,000 in the next year with virtually no extra expense except the food.
In repeated discussion, Finance Director Harvey reiterated in both the morning and evening session that these funds go into the county’s general funds and then back to the sheriff’s office to support his budget.
Craig’s explanation appeared to pacify many in the crowd, with a few even asking if they could allocate more funds to increase public safety. A couple of speakers however countered that the sheriff should use more advanced planning and regular upkeep at the jail instead of such a large item coming at one time; one person suggested the county completely shut down the jail and ship all our inmates elsewhere.
Other than the additional money needed by the sheriff, key expenses leading to the tax hike include a projected 10-percent increase in health insurance for all county employees and a criticized salary study [see story in this week’s Progress on the salaries].
In past tax meetings, the public generally accepted higher insurance costs as a reasonable expenditure. Thursday, however, quite a few people commented that they are paying more out of their pockets for their own healthcare and the county employees should be expected to do the same. After some discussion of benefits and deductibles one person said the county has a “Cadillac” insurance plan and called on the commissioner to pass the cost increase to the employees. Finance Director Harvey said the county has a very middle of the road, normal, health insurance policy for employees.
Much of the meeting was filled with a variety of government ideas, suggestions and complaints not directly tied to the millage rate. Among some of them: [Editor’s Note: Some speakers did not identify themselves. Where the name is known we include it.]
• CFO Harvey said the county is running about four percent under budget this year. “2016 looks good,” she said.
• As usual with our county’s schizophrenic budgeting timetable, there was understandable confusion over how the county is now passing a tax rate for 2016; taxes collected with this millage will fund 20216 budget, plus “help support” 2017 expenses. The county will hold budget sessions for 2017 in October. Commission Chair Jones said he had inherited this mess with the timetable when he took office a decade ago and he had never even been able to pinpoint how Pickens let the schedules get so off-kilter.
Several members of the audience referred to this “cart-before-horse” budgeting.
• The car tag tax system in place now has not worked to the benefit of the counties. The system where new car buyers pay all their tax at once and then don’t get yearly tax bills was supposed to balance out, but counties have definitely lost yearly revenue on these former taxable vehicles.
• Joe Kelly said with employee salaries, it is important for the county to realize that in the private sector the average American household has a seen a decline in yearly income of $2,500. He said salary studies need to compare to private sector jobs as well as other governments so you don’t have a “nuclear arms race” of rising salaries in government.
• Joey Roland said trying to keep up with other counties is like during the boom years of real estate when everyone thought if their neighbor had a new car in their driveway they needed one too. “Then the tide went out and we could all see who was swimming naked.”
• It was questioned whether $40,000 spent on the county’s salary study was necessary, as department heads would know best who needed raises. Magistrate Judge Wigington said it was “an absolute necessity” as a starting point. Particularly with public safety, employee turnover is extremely costly due to required training that is lost when someone is able to move to another county that pays more.
• Businessman and detention officer Jody Weaver questioned the findings that show some similar job titles are compensated much differently in different county departments, and asked if the study found any positions that were overpaid. Commission Chair Jones acknowledged they had found a few discrepancies where people “were making a little too much.” Jones said he and the other commissioners are “picking the [salary study] clean” before moving ahead with it.
• Much discussion centered on the lack of a large commercial tax base here. Jones said actually at this point, most of the commercial buildings in the county are full and they are issuing more permits for new businesses so it looks like things are picking up.
One speaker said that when word gets out that this county is raising taxes by more than 10 percent it would stop any growth in the local economy as companies look for other locations.
• Chief Tax Appraiser Roy Dobbs said figures from across Georgia indicate that residential growth doesn’t lower taxes and counties with larger populations generally have higher tax rates. “I hate to burst anyone’s bubble,” he said.
• Ralph Fitts said the higher taxes make working Americans feel like they are bound mules walking in circles all day and will never get ahead. If it doesn’t change it will destroy the work ethic in this country.
• Several seniors commented they would move out of Pickens if they could sell their houses and go to counties that offer senior tax relief. But they said no one will move here because the county doesn’t offer seniors a break. Jones responded that actually home sales are strong here, “so somebody is doing something right.”
• One lady said, “I am a member of the Tea Party so you know my views on taxes but the sheriff needs to get what he needs.”
• Clayton Prebble, who sits on the county planning commission, said there should be some study of merging the City of Jasper with Pickens County, like other Georgia city/counties have done. He thought this might provide better services for all citizens with less cost.
Commissioner Jones said he would be willing to talk about it with the city. He said it was possible.
Another citizen responded, “We are too small to need commissioners and a mayor.”
• It was discussed whether a sales tax would be more effective to fund the county. According to the discussion, Georgia limits sales tax to seven percent and we are already at that here. But it was noted that other states like Tennessee do well using more sales taxes.
• Commissioner Becky Denney said she would like to explore the sale of liquor in the county as a way to raise additional revenue. She said this is something that seems like a really good business idea.