More than five years after the recession began, continued economic troubles necessitate the millage rate increase. The rate hike raises taxes for unincorporated areas by 1.95 mills, or 25.2 percent, and 1.92 mills for incorporated areas, or 21.2 percent.
County Administrator Peter Olson said when the recession hit, measures were instituted to cut costs.
“… The last four years, I think Mr. Brown did everything he could to cut costs. We reduced over 50, I think, personnel from the peak … Equipment purchases have been deferred, vehicle purchases have been deferred. Everybody’s been on furlough for in the fifth year now. No one’s had raises for five years now,” Olson said. “If it had been a short recession, I think that strategy could have worked, but given the length of this thing and the continued fall, especially of the sales tax — this year we are running down 7 percent behind where we were last year and last year we were down about 10 percent from two years ago.
“Some of that’s a reduction in sales tax Georgia Power is paying; some of it is a change, the elimination basically of sales tax on cars; some of it is due to agricultural tax exemptions ...; some of that is the economy still.”
Now, there’s nothing left to cut.
“There’s really nowhere left to cut, unless we took some drastic action, reducing service, which we didn’t see any appetite for,” Olson said. “... You could eliminate fire stations or reduce the number of ambulances or pave less roads and so forth. I mean, really, half the budget goes to public safety, and that’s not something most people want to see the reduction in the level of service on.”
A breakdown released by the county reported ongoing revenue problems. The property tax digest is down 9 percent since a peak in 2008, with the real property portion dropping 23 percent. Sales tax, as Olson said, dropped 10 percent from 2010 to 2012 and is down 7 percent this year.
In an effort to reduce expenses, the county had reduced payroll by 50 employees, instituted furloughs, froze pay raises and deferred the equipment and vehicle purchases.
According to the report, the budget dropped $6 million from 2008. But, the crunch forced officials to dip into reserves, spending $5 million from that fund in the past two years.
Olson said the reserve fund balance was down $7 million from the peak of $14 million in 2006.
“You are supposed to keep it in the two- to three-month and that’s really a little over one month. If we didn’t do something, we were going to have to use another $4 to $5 million, basically almost just to scrap by,” he said.
For Bartow County to have the target balance, it would need between $13 million and $19 million in reserves.
A look at the past decade shows the county last raised the millage rate in 2005 (see accompanying graph). Since that time, the rate dropped, leveling out at roughly 9.05 for incorporated Bartow and 7.73 for unincorporated areas in 2010.
Beginning in 2009, the county showed a decrease in net tax monies and net tax percentage. With the largest hit coming in 2010 when the net tax monies dropped $1,523,960 and the percentage 5.97 percent.
Bartow County Chief Financial Officer Jo Taylor said the proposed tax increase for a home in unincorporated with a fair market value of $125,000 is about $97.50. For a non-homestead property with a fair market value of $275,000, the increase means an additional $214.50.
For the counterparts in incorporated Bartow, the increases are $96 and $211.20, respectively.
“We would hope to see in a couple of years the property tax improve and the millage rate can go down,” Olson said.
The public can address the matter in public hearings scheduled to begin next week. Three public hearings will be held at the Frank Moore Administration and Judicial Center, 135 W. Cherokee Ave., in the Commissioner’s Conference Room on July 17 at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and July 24 at 9 a.m.
Olson said the county is expecting public participation during the scheduled hearings.
“We seem to be in a pretty strong anti-tax attitude. ... We wouldn’t be surprised if we get a lot of people come out and object,” he said. “Other folks have commented to [Commissioner Steve Taylor] and to myself, ‘Well, you know, we knew it was coming. We knew you were in the situation. We’re not surprised.’
“We felt a little better in the sense that it seemed like this county had probably been getting by as long as it could on the previous millage. That doesn’t necessarily make anybody feel any better about it, and believe me, we don’t feel good about it. No one wants to raise taxes, and Commissioner Taylor is very disappointed to have to do it. It’s something we were hoping we could avoid, but the situation drives us to it unfortunately.”