Bryan County’s proposed property tax increase for the 2008 fiscal year has a few residents riled up, mostly about why there was a budget shortfall in the first place. On Monday evening, at the second of three public hearings, 12 residents showed up to find out more.
When looking at the five year budget history of Bryan County, Commission Chairman Jimmy Burnsed said there has been a millage rollback rate each year up until now. The last time the county saw a millage rate of 6.9 was back in 2001, and is looking at it again because of homestead exemptions. Burnsed said last year the county’s senior population was being taxed out of homes.
"So we asked the state legislature…to allow the citizens to vote on a $50,000 homestead exemption of those 65 and older. At that same meeting, it was proposed that there be a $30,000 homestead exemption for everybody else," Burnsed said. While residents currently had an exemption of $2,000 at that time, the vote passed and it went up to $30,000.
"In 2006, the exemptions on the tax digest were $27.8 million, and those exemptions went to $158.9 million, which meant that we took a lot of money off of the tax digest. That is what is creating the shortfall on the budget that had to be made up," Burnsed said.
He explained that the 10 percent budget increase this year (from $15.3 million last year to $16.6 million this year) is split between county salaries and benefits, and "various and sundry items in the line-item budget," he said.
Burnsed said originally, the commission looked at a millage increase of 1.2 mills.
"But because the county has been frugal over the last three to four years, we did have a surplus of $1.39 million. And we are taking that $1.39, putting it in this budget, and reducing the (1.2 mills) increase of a millage rate to the .4 mills increase," he said.
Burnsed said he’s the first to admit that the $30,000 homestead exemption was a mistake. The $50,000 was not, he said.
"If we had done just the $50,000, we wouldn’t have a budget shortfall," Burnsed said.
Burnsed said that while nobody likes to pay taxes, it upholds necessary services the county requires.
"We don’t have a spendthrift commission," he said.
The county’s budget is broken up into two categories: required and optional services. Required services include things like county government, elections, libraries, roads, the sheriff’s department, etc. These services make up just over 62 percent of the budget, or $10.37 million. Optional services include things like planning and zoning, recreation, EMS, transportation, mosquito and animal control, water and sewer, etc. These expenses make up just over 37 percent, or $6.26 million.
Jack Hyde wanted to know why the Sheriff’s Department will receive the bulk of required services, holding almost 20 percent of the budget’s at $3.2 million. Burnsed said most of it is operational, and the state required the department hire new staff this year. He said the county is additionally looking into e-911, or a cell phone fee for 911 calls, which he said should hopefully start at some point this year and increase revenue.
Wayne Carney wanted to know more about what the county was planning with the industrial park.
"My big beef about it is, and I mean, this is stuff that’s just glaring at you when you go by. We got a big old sidewalk in front of that place that starts in a weed patch, runs the entire front of that thing, and ends in a weed patch. Now how many pedestrians do we anticipate having walking up and down that thing? I’ll tell you. A big fat zero," he said. If there aren’t going to be pedestrians, the county certainly didn’t need to pay to put up gas lamps on the sidewalk, either, Carney said.
Burnsed said the area is a "commercial opportunity," and the industrial park is a long-range plan. To broaden the tax base, new industries need to be recruited to come into the community, Burnsed said.
"Hwy. 280 is scheduled for widening to four lanes in the 2013-out years, that will include sidewalks that will go all the way to Blitchton," Jones said.
While new employees for these industrial park companies may not be local, the idea is to draw people into employment, Burnsed said. As far as when the park should begin bringing in money, he said it should happen within the next few years.
"Those companies that are out there now are growing pretty well, and the other 500 acres across the road, I think when that comes out of the ground it’s going to be pretty quick, I’d say at least two to three years to break even," Burnsed said.
County Administrator Phil Jones explained the salary increase portion of the budget, and said that annually, any employees who have been with the county for over 12 months get a step increase of 1.25 percent, plus the state’s cost of living allowance. This year, that combined number is a 3.65 percent raise. As healthcare costs continue to increase, Jones said the benefits for county employees may change in the future.
Burnsed said one major area the commission looked at during the budget was EMS.
"There are 28 EMTs who work 24-7," he said. While he admitted he doesn’t think they receive enough calls to warrant the cost of running the services, "you can’t cut it out and you can’t cut the crews down, because they have to provide that service when the calls come in…it’s mandated by good sense and public health," he said.
The county looked into outsourcing EMS from one of the surrounding counties, but said it would not be any more cost effective. EMS, with $1.69 million, makes up almost one-fourth of the budget’s optional services.
The county currently has a $2 million reserve of operational funds, which is solely for emergency purposes. The way the county’s budget operates, that money would keep the county running for roughly two months in the event of a major natural disaster.
Carney wondered why, rather than borrowing against SPLOST funds, the county doesn’t use money from the emergency reserve, and in the case of a natural disaster then go ahead and borrow against SPLOST. Burnsed said the county’s reserve is too small to successfully do that.
In response to Jack Hyde’s question about why Jones drives a county-funded Excursion, he said the vehicle was purchased before gas prices had gone up, and is necessary for holding all the commissioners.
"The commissioners decided I needed a vehicle that was four-wheel drive and capable of transporting them and others when they come into the county to look at the county... We paid $32,000 for it, if you’d like to come and look at the receipt. We got a tremendous discount on the vehicle," he said.