“Last year’s county millage rate was 7.73,” County Administrator Peter Olson said during a preliminary presentation. “The proposed rate is 9.68, a change of 1.95 mills. I want to emphasize that the county’s millage rate is going up 25 percent, but the overall tax bill is not going up 25 percent.”
Many taxpayers, however, seemed to be confused over the way property taxes are derived.
Elaine Smith, from the Pine Log area, said that her family has owned property in Bartow County since 1929.
“While I appreciate the financial hardships and the need for all the services provided by the county, my taxes are going up 81 percent from last year,” she said. “That’s a hard pill to swallow along with the 25 percent millage rate.”
“A lot of people see that 25 percent number and they don’t realize that is only 35 percent of the overall tax bill,” Olson said. “I heard people say they were facing 40, 50, 80 percent increases, but that is from the tax assessor’s office. The tax assessors are charged by the state with determining the fair market value and then assessing 40 percent of that value. But, if you feel the assessment is wrong, you can appeal those findings. I’m sorry that people are upset about their property assessments, but we have no control or authority over that.”
Olson said he had heard anecdotally about people claiming their $1,000 tax bill was going to rise to $1,260.
“On a $125,000 house in unincorporated Bartow County, you would see an annual increase of $97.50” Olson said, “or $8.13 a month. A $250,000 house would see an annual increase of $190, or $16.25 per month.”
Olson said some of the reasons for the millage increase was a decrease in revenues, especially property taxes, sales taxes and fees.
“The property tax digest, that is the amalgamate of all taxable properties — real property, personal property, vehicles, etc. — has declined about 9 percent since 2008, with the real property portion down by 23 percent,” Olson said. “Sales tax revenue was down 17 percent in 2010 and fees declined as fewer permits for things like construction were issued.”
In order to reduce the deficits, Olson said the county has reduced its payroll by more than 50 employees, has frozen raises for the past five years, required 12 furlough days for the past five years and deferred purchases of vehicles and equipment.
Bartow resident and former commissioner candidate Mike Bearden countered that the citizens weren’t the ones who should suffer.
“Over the past years, Bartow has transitioned from a small, rural community to a large one with more than 100,000 people,” he said, “and there has been unchecked county budget growth. In recent years the biggest struggle has been for our hardworking citizens, half of whom statistically are unemployed or underemployed. Our biggest need is jobs for those people and secondary to jobs is not increasing taxes, but reducing taxes. Given what you have proposed, you will go down in history as the commissioner who proposed the largest tax increase ever.”
Bearden said it was well past time to stop punishing so many good employees with furloughs while continuing the practice of holding on to “those who may not really add value to service for citizens resulting in reduced morale and lower performance. It’s time for tough love to be administered in county government.”
Another tax hike opponent, Stuart Manley said some taxpayers are victims of a “double whammy.”
He asked Olson if the current assessment notices were considered in the budgeting processs or if last year’s values were used.
Olson said they were based on the assessor’s digest, which was completed at the end of June 2013, and moderated in anticipation of appeals.
“If the budget projections include the most recent assessment moderated for anticipated appeals,” Manley said, “that is a double whammy for those who received a recent increase in the assessed value of their property and a proposed increase in the millage rate, which is applied to the tax assessment. The county increased property assessments in the good years without increasing the millage rate — a back-door tax increase. If the county had been disciplined in bringing property values down during the recession, indicators are that it may be time for an increase in those property assessments.
“Since the real property tax digest has decreased in 2013, has the county been slow in decreasing property valuations along with the market? In other words, have many properties remained overvalued to date? If the millage rate must increase to fund county operations, it should affect all taxpayers equally and should not be a burden borne by the property owners who received mid-year property reassessment increases.”
A third public hearing will be held on Wednesday, July 24, at 10 a.m. in the Commissioner’s Conference Room at the Frank Moore Administration and Judicial Center, 135 W. Cherokee Ave.