The conference room on the lower level of the Cherokee County Administrative Office building was a busy place Tuesday as the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners held its first two hearings on a potential increase to the county’s property tax millage rate.
The two hearings, one at 11 a.m. and the other at 6 p.m., began with a presentation from County Manager Jerry Cooper, who went into detail about where the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year stood and how the rate increase had been calculated. In addition, he explained how a handful of additional options to be considered had been developed since advertising the increase at the highest possible rate the county was considering.
“After the advertising of the millage rates, we have made some changes and also some options that you may consider,” Cooper said. “Based on finance’s review, we feel comfortable increasing the TAVT (Title Ad Valorem Tax, paid when a motor vehicle is officially titled) revenue by $500,000, decrease inmate medical in consultation with the sheriff by $100,000, they’re negotiating a new contract now, and then decreasing expenses by half a million, I feel pretty good about accomplishing that.”
In addition, half of a county IT position was transferred between E-911 and the general fund, the start date of 11 firefighters was moved from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1, 2021 and insurance premium tax (IPT) in the fire fund was increased by $500,000. With these changes, this led to a decrease in the amount of needed property tax for the general fund by $1.12 million and $644,000 for the fire fund. Along with this, the option of using either $500,000 or $1 million in reserves for both the general fund and the fire fund were brought forth.
After making these modifications and calculating in the use of the two levels of reserves, the county was able to make a slight reduction in the property tax millage rate for the upcoming budget. Building off of the current general fund millage rate of 5.216, the rate could increase to between 6.202 mills (bringing in additional public safety personnel, but no market pay adjustments for county employees) and 6.667 mills (hiring the additional personnel, while providing a 10 percent pay adjustment for public safety employees and 5 percent for non-public safety employees) if no reserves are used. Should the county decide to include $500,000 of reserves in the budget, this would decrease to between 6.158 and 6.622 mills, or 6.113 to 6.577 mills with the use of $1 million of reserve money. At the same time, the fire fund millage rate would drop from the current 3.269 mills to between 1.975 (additional personnel, no pay adjustment) and 2.3 mills (additional personnel, 10 percent adjustment) once the IPT transfer from the general fund (arguably the key reason the general fund rate is rising and the fire fund rate is falling, according to Board of Commissioners Chairman Harry Johnston) is completed. By factoring in $500,000 in reserves, this rate goes further down to between 1.916 and 2.241 mills, but with the use of $1 million in reserves, the fire fund rate drops all the way to between 1.856 and 2.181 mills. Lastly, no matter which route the county chooses to take, the millage rate for parks bond debt service would drop from 0.480 to 0.461 mills.
“I know none of us were happy with the highest rates that were advertised. I think the adjustments Mr. Cooper has just presented represent progress,” Johnston said. “It seems like where we are is about halfway from this increase down to zero with your proposed adjustments, especially if we use reserves.”
Commissioner Benny Carter added he would like to challenge everyone to keep working to do better and get the rate down as much as possible, while also suggesting the use of reserves could be an effective and justified method in doing so.
Nearly 30 residents addressed the commissioners during the two hearings.
“I and many others in this county can’t support a tax increase when we’ve got 50 million Americans that are fired or laid off due to a very politicized pandemic that we’ve got going on in this country right now,” Randall Fowler said.
While agreeing that a salary increase for the county’s first responders would be in order, Brett Mulkey said, “I don’t feel that the burden 100 percent should fall back on the property owners. I think a lot of it should go back to sales tax,” such as the 1 percent local options sales tax (LOST) nearly every other county in Georgia has.
A number of other residents mentioned the option of implementing a LOST in Cherokee County to keep property taxes lower. Johnston said this had gone to a referendum several years earlier, but had been defeated. However, if there was enough support for such a sales tax, he said the county would certainly be open to considering that possibility moving forward, although it would take an act of the state legislature to get that process going.
At the 11 a.m. meeting, John Long called on the county to look at what the budget could be when considering pay increases of 13 and 15 percent for first responders, while returning at 6 p.m. to challenge the county to have every department come back within 48 hours with revised budgets to cut 15 percent of what was being asked for to keep the millage rate down.
Additional suggestions citizens had included deferring the pay increases being proposed, finding things in the budget that could be cut and increasing the amount of reserve money being used.
“As a taxpayer, and more importantly as a citizen of this county, we implore you to whenever possible consider the overall impact to those whom you serve and ask that you would do the prudent thing in managing the finances like we citizens must do,” Rick Davies said.
“I would certainly like to see a rate decrease at a time like this, not a rate increase,” Greg Phelps added. “There has to be other areas in the budget to cut.”
Near the conclusion of both hearings, Sheriff Frank Reynolds thanked everyone who voiced their support for local law enforcement and stated he understood if the pay increase had to be postponed but that, no matter what the board decided, he and his deputies would still do their job to the best of their abilities.
Residents wanting to voice their concerns regarding the millage rate have one more opportunity to do so, as a third hearing has been scheduled for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 12. During this meeting, the board of commissioners will open the floor to discussion from the public and, once the public comment portion of the meeting has concluded, a final decision on the millage rate will be made.