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Updated: County says city response based on wrong info, creates 'unnecessary controversy'
County, city sparred over taxes at public hearing; City consultant says county wrongly spent taxes, took too much; county says city response based on incorrect information and contentions
Consultant Wesley Corbitt speaks at Thursday night's public hearing regarding Bryan County's proposed millage rate increase on Richmond Hill residents while assistant city manager Scott Allison hands out the city's response to county claims the tax hike is about equalization.

Editor's note, updated Monday evening:  Thursday night's story updated story is below. Attached are the county's presentation used at its first public hearing, a response from consultant Wesley Corbitt, Mayor Russ Carpenter's speech to commissioners and a memo issued Monday evening from Bryan County Commission Chairman Carter Infinger. See a full story in Thursday's Bryan County News. 

County taxes
City response
Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter remarks to county
Memo from Chairman Carter Infinger

Updated: In a memo released Monday afternoon, Bryan County Commission Chairman Carter Infinger said a Richmond Hill consultant used "incorrect information and contentions," to form the city's response to a proposed county tax hike on Richmond Hill residents. 

It also created "unnecessary controversy," Infinger's memo said. 

The release of the memo from the county is the latest in a back-and-forth between city and county officials that has gone on since Bryan County announced in July it would equalize county millage rates by raising taxes on property owners in incorporated Richmond Hill.  

Thursday night, Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter used a public hearing at the South Bryan Administrative Complex to rip a county proposal to raise the millage rate on property owners who live in the city. 

"The county does not provide equal service to all its citizens, and it never has," Carpenter said. "In fact, we believe that the county is over collecting taxes on all Bryan County citizens and businesses already. Pembroke and some of the unincorporated areas should be receiving a much larger tax decrease than the tiny amount proposed."

Carpenter also said the city commissioned a study and "found some concerning discrepancies, and some major issues in relation to state law, which forbids counties from using a city's taxes to pay for services the city doesn't receive. We found that in many, in many areas, the county was not being fair."

A few minutes later, Carpenter turned it over to a consultant, Effingham County Commission Chairman Wesley Corbitt, a former city manager in Rincon and a partner in SDS Consultants, LLC. 

Here's a short version of what followed. 

First, both Carpenter and Corbitt said Thursday that Bryan County has been overtaxing residents in Pembroke and the unincorporated areas for years, and Carpenter said the county isn't providing many of the 31 services the county has deemed "countywide" to the city's residents, among them water, sewer, police, fire and public works. 

They also claim Bryan County is using money earmarked for countywide services to help fund services for residents in the unincorporated part of the county. Carpenter also said the county owes Pembroke and unincorporated residents a bigger tax cut, if not a rebate. 

City representatives at Thursday's hearing also asked the city to rethink it's proposal to equalize the millage rate at 8.8 mills for all property owners in the county, which would lower taxes in Pembroke and the unincorporated areas of the county while raising Richmond Hill's by slightly less than 1 mill. That increase would result in an increase of roughly $28 a year for a home valued at $150,000 with a homestead exemption, according to the county. 

The city also claims the county is hoarding millions in reserves.

What's more, some who spoke on behalf of the city, such as Richmond Hill Mayor Pro Tem Johnny Murphy and Downtown Development Authority Chairman Georgene Brazer, said the city is is the county's economic engine and is already paying more than its share to fund countywide services through its contribution of property, business and sales taxes into county coffers. 

County officials at Thursday's hearing, meanwhile, said little different from previous presentations but had much of the county staff on hand to answer questions one on one both before and after the hearing. 

In brief presentations, they repeated the claim the millage rate increase is about tax equity, since both Pembroke and county residents have paid a higher millage rate since 2003 for the same services. They also say state law requires counties to have uniform millage rates. Bryan County is reportedly only one of five in which the county portion of the millage rate differs from city to city to unincorporated. 

And, county officials said the move to a form of budgeting where countywide revenue funds countywide taxes, and unincorporated revenue funds services in the unincorporated areas is a more transparent way to fund county government. They also reiterated that city residents receive the same 31 countywide services as others, including libraries, courts, E911, roads and the sheriff's office. 

County commissioners rarely responded during the hearing, though Bryan County Commission Chairman Carter Infinger said he "had questions" about the numbers Corbitt used in his presentation, without elaborating. 

But they note claims the county has a massive reserve are misleading because Dec. 31 fund balances are typically when taxes have been collected and before money has been disbursed.

Service delivery strategy:

To further complicate matters, the two sides are also disputing which side balked at going into voluntary mediation over the state-required service delivery strategy cities and counties have to agree to, and at one point couldn't agree on mediators. They also can't decide on whose fault it is that the process hasn't moved forward. 

All sides have agreed to an extension of the current strategy until Oct. 31, but barring something changing, it's possible they'll let the court decide the issues at stake. 

Near the end of Thursday's hearing, Murphy said he agreed taxes should be equal, but asked the county to back off its plan and go back into discussions with city officials to find a solution. 

No one took him up on it. 

The county is apparently set to adopt the uniform 8.8 millage rate for all residents at its next meeting, which is Tuesday. 

Representatives from Bryan County and Richmond Hill were polite to one another at Thursday's hearing, and seemed repeatedly to want to find a way to iron out the dispute between the two governments. They also said they respected one another. 

But both sides also agreed relations between their respective elected officials are as bad as they've been in some time. District 4 Commissioner Brad Brooksher called them terrible. And, at the Aug. 2 hearings in Pembroke, the location of which is also a bone of contention, District 5 Commissioner Rick Gardner said the relationship between the city and county is "worse than it's ever been," in his experience on the commission, and that began in 2002.

One example of just how divided the two sides appear to have become over the issue as a result of a statement Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter made at the close of Tuesday's city council meeting, when he referred to the South Bryan Administration Complex as "the Taj Mahal," as its been called by critics for years.  

District 3 commissioner Steve Meyers had a response Thursday night.

"Tell the mayor I'll be glad to meet with him at the amphitheater in J.F. Gregory Park," Meyers said, a reference to the now-gone facility in the park that was roundly criticized by opponents as a waste of money. 

It's not clear exactly why the relationship has deteriorated to the point officials say it has, but the city's 5,000 acre annexation of much of the property around the Belfast Keller interchange in late 2017 appeared to take county officials by surprise and there were complaints by county commissioners of a lack of communication. 

They were reminded of that by city officials at the public hearings, including City Councilwoman Tara Baraniak, who questioned why the county hadn't informed them of the millage rate increase on their constituents prior to publication of a story online and called it "hypocritical" in light of county complaints over the city's move to annex the land.

Russ and Carter
Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter and Bryan County Commission Chairman Carter Infinger talk after Thursday's public hearing. - photo by Jeff Whitten
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