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County settles Rayonier case; gives administrator 21% raise
Bryan County seal 2016

After a lengthy executive session, the Bryan County Board of Commissioners announced Tuesday night a $295,000 settlement in the Rayonier tax appeal case.

Rayonier — the largest land owner in Bryan County — had disagreed with its property taxes for 2010-2014 and was asking for a $778,140.92 refund, including $129,874.74 in interest.

The amount includes two-thirds in taxes for Bryan County Schools and one-third in county taxes. No property in the cities of Richmond Hill or Pembroke are impacted.

“The whole process was very amenable,” Commissioners Chairman Jimmy Burnsed said. “This has been a year-long process and we’re glad to put it to bed.”

The two sides were in mediation over taxes due on 21,000 acres. If there had not been an agreement, Rayonier could have filed suit in Superior Court.

The final vote on the settlement was 3-1, with Commissioners Steve Myers, Noah Covington and Dallas Daniel voting in favor. Commissioner Wade Price cast the lone dissenting vote. Commissioner Rick Gardner was not at the meeting, which had been postponed from Oct. 11 due to Hurricane Matthew.

“I just wanted them to know it wasn’t unanimous,” Price said afterward.

In a November 2015 letter to the county from an attorney representing Rayonier in the case, the company requested the refund “as a result of excessive and illegally and erroneously” assessed taxes for the years in question.

Bryan County Chief Appraiser Liz Lynn said the county’s Board of Equalization upheld the values in an appeal hearing for the 2013-2015 tax years, but no official appeal was filed for the other years. The Georgia Department of Revenue requires sides to go to mediation before moving on to Superior Court.

The parties do not believe the issue will harm any relationships between the company and local governments. Burnsed pointed to the cooperation between the county, the city of Richmond Hill and the company in establishing the Belfast Commerce Park, as well as the 95 acres Rayonier donated to Bryan County Schools for the new Richmond Hill Middle School.

Bryan County Schools Superintendent Paul Brooksher also noted at a Board of Education work session in September that he was working with Rayonier on memorandums of understanding that could see the company give the school district 27 acres for a new middle school and 100 acres for a new high school in South Bryan County.

Burnsed said the county’s finances are healthy and that any refund should not impact services or result in layoffs. Of the final settlement, 66 percent of it will be made up of school funds, since two-thirds of the total county millage rate excluding the two cities is Bryan County Schools (roughly 15 mills in school taxes and nine mills in county taxes).

Representatives from Rayonier were not immediately available for comment.

Commissioners then voted 4-0 to increase Administrator Ben Taylor’s salary $20,000 annually, effective Nov. 1. Taylor started with the county in August 2014 at a salary of $95,000. The increase is a 21 percent bump.

“Ben does an excellent job and is an asset to the community,” Myers said. “We got him cheap and we may still have him cheap.”

Taylor was one of several employees, in addition to Bryan County Emergency Services Chief Freddy Howell, whom commissioners praised earlier in the meeting during a discussion about the county’s reaction to Hurricane Matthew.

“I heard from GEMA and FEMA, people who do this for a living, that we had the best people in place for this situation that you could want,” Covington added.

Taylor has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in public administration from Georgia Southern University. He previously was city manager in Ashburn, Ga. 

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