Rayonier — the largest land owner in Bryan County — disagrees with its property taxes for 2010-2014 and is 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 specific laws on how taxes can be applied can be interpreted in different ways,” Commissioners Chairman Jimmy Burnsed said. “We assumed we would reach a resolution by now but there’s no final agreement, although we expect one to be forthcoming by the end of the year.”
The two sides are currently in mediation over taxes due on 21,000 acres. If the two sides do not reach an agreement, Rayonier could choose to file suit in Superior Court.
In a 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 not 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.
“We don’t believe it will get to that point,” Burnsed said of a lawsuit. “Rayonier has been very receptive to negotiations and have been a good citizen of the community for many years.”
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.
Part of the ongoing negotiations is how much of a refund Rayonier should get and how it would be paid. Options include a lump sum payment or credits toward future taxes. Discussions have also included how Rayonier’s property should be taxed moving forward.
“It’s not just the value of the land,” according to Burnsed. “The laws regarding silviculture and timberland are very complex.”
Burnsed said the county’s finances are healthy and that any refund should not impact services or result in layoffs. Whatever the final amount is, however, 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).
Superintendent Paul Brooksher said he preferred not to comment as the county and its civil counsel are handling the negotiations. The school board meets at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at its offices in Black Creek to discuss future growth. Previous discussions have focused on the need for new buildings under scenarios ranging from $52 million to $156 million to accommodate an expected 3,500 additional students over the next decade.
Representatives from Rayonier were not immediately available for comment.