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County votes on tax "equalization," Richmond Hill says it will file suit
Measure lowers millage rate for Pembroke, county, hikes it for Richmond Hill
Bryan County

Bryan County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a millage rate increase for incorporated Richmond Hill in a move that will lower taxes in Pembroke and the unincorporated parts of the county.

It’s not clear what will happen next.

Minutes after the vote, a press release with a statement from Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter was given to reporters. In it, he referred to the Aug. 9 public hearing at the South Bryan Administrative Complex on the county proposal. 

“Of course, we had hoped the county commissioners would have taken the sincere concerns we shared at the Aug. 9 public hearing to heart and we are disappointed with the outcome,”  Carpenter said. “This action by the county leaves us no other choice than to file civil litigation in order to protect the city of Richmond Hill’s citizens and businesses.”

At the hearing, Carpenter, along with a consultant, Effingham County Commission Chairman Wesley Corbitt, several city officials and a number of residents, blasted the county plan as unfair to Richmond Hill property owners and businesses. Richmond Hill Mayor Pro Tem Johnny Murphy, who also attended Tuesday's commission meeting, asked commissioners Thursday to reconsider the plan. 

In simplest terms, the county maintains that under a new budget system it is equalizing taxes across the county by charging residents across the board 8.8 mills for services officials say everyone in Bryan County receives, such as E911, the courts, and EMS.

Other services restricted to the unincorporated parts of the county, such as garbage pickup and water and sewer, are paid for through fees charged only to unincorporated residents, the county says.

But Richmond Hill officials dispute that city residents receive all those services, and through a long presentation from Corbitt at the Aug. 9 hearing questioned the county’s budgeting and spending, claiming at one point that the county “over budgeted expenditures and under budgeted revenues of the county for all years of operation from 2010 to 2016, based on the approved audits,” a practice which Corbitt claimed had generated more than $12 million in property taxes than the county needed.

What's more, city officials says their residents pays approximately 40 percent of the county's taxes despite only having about 30 percent of its population. 

County officials essentially contend the city cherry-picked numbers and accuse the city of causing “unnecessary controversy,” according to a statement sent out Monday by Commission Chairman Carter Infinger, who was absent from Tuesday’s council meeting due to work. 

While it's hazy what will happen next as far litigation, it's clear the dispute between the county and Richmond Hill runs deeper than the millage rate, which the county is required to set in order to adopt a budget. 

For starters, Bryan County, Pembroke and Richmond Hill need to complete negotiations on a state mandated service delivery strategy – namely, what entity provides what services to residents in which area, including some 5,000 acres in South Bryan recently annexed by Richmond Hill.

Bryan County, Richmond Hill and Pembroke, whose leaders have largely been silent on the issue, have agreed to extend the current service delivery strategy until Oct. 31. 

At the same time, both Richmond Hill and Bryan County agreed to enter voluntary mediation until news of Bryan County’s proposed millage rate equalization was made public, angering Richmond Hill leaders who say they were caught by surprise. 

Since then, both Richmond Hill and Bryan County representatives are accusing the other of refusing to meet in mediation, and the litigation Carpenter said will now happen appears to have as much to do with service delivery as the millage rate.

As it stands now, the new tax rate is 8.8 mills for residents in Richmond Hill, Pembroke and unincorporated Bryan County. County officials have said that is about a 12 percent increase for Richmond Hill residents, or about $28 on a $150,000 home.

Richmond Hill, on the other hand, claims that the increase will cost its top 20 business property owners combined about $414,982 in additional taxes in 2018.   

County officials in turn said Tuesday that businesses and property owners in Pembroke have been paying the additional mill in taxes for the last 15 years.

That tax inequity, as they call it, was apparently uncovered as Bryan County began changing its budgeting system last year, and after Tuesday’s vote District 5 Commissioner Rick Gardner said equalizing the millage rate “was a long time coming.”

“It was a little difficult for me at least, knowing how the millage rate was broke down over the years,” said Gardner, who first began serving on the commission in 2002. “However, I take full responsibility for not realizing there was a period of time when there was an inequity in taxation, and that Pembroke was paying full millage rate, that unincorporated residents were paying full millage rate and there was a break for the city of Richmond Hill.”

Gardner added: “There are people that disagree and there are people who definitely agree it’s the right thing to do. I feel like we need to work harder as a county to be more transparent and just look at how we’re doing things in an effort to not let situations like this develop over a long period of time. I think our citizens are well served by equalizing taxes across the board.”

After hearing of Carpenter’s statement, county commissioners Steve Myers of District 3 and Noah Covington of District 1 weighed in, linking Richmond Hill’s plan to go to court with service delivery discussions.

“By equalizing taxes for everyone in the county, we’re ensuring no one is disenfranchised and everyone is paying the same amount,” Myers said, “And we are hearing, I guess, from the Richmond Hill perspective that we will go into civil litigation to determine whether or not they are paying for services in the county that other citizens in the county are paying for. But now we have a level playing field and baseline to work off of, so now we can go on with our SDS negotiations.”

While Carpenter said in the release the city had “no other choice than to file civil litigation,”  and Murphy said the county had forced Richmond Hill's hand, Covington disagreed.

“Bryan County is still willing and has always been willing to enter into negotiations with them either directly or through a mediator,” he said. “Richmond Hill is choosing to pursue civil litigation.”

More on this story in Thursday’s Bryan County News.

 Here's a link to what's already been reported: 

Updated: County says city response based on wrong info, creates 'unnecessary controversy'

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