BOC aims to keep services in budget
HOST property tax exemption remains in question

CONYERS - After a week of budget meetings, Rockdale County residents can expect about the same level of services to be provided in 2009, however, officials are not making any promises on keeping the 100 percent property tax exemption provided by the county's HOST.

The Rockdale County Board of Commissioners will hold two public hearings on the proposed 2009 budget at 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Dec. 16. The commissioners will then hold a called meeting at 6 p.m. to have the first reading of the budget. The second reading and vote to approve will be held the following Tuesday during a regularly scheduled BOC meeting at 10 a.m.

County Finance Director Mia Wilson said work is continuing on the 2009 budget, and at a projected $56 million, it will change little from this year's budget. She said the county has dealt with a sour economy this past year and does not expect that to change over the next 12 months.

"I suspect our sales tax revenue for HOST and SPLOST will be similar to the collections we saw in 2008, so I'm not anticipating a drop in 2009," she said. "For our property tax, I don't expect an increase or decrease in the digest. The challenge, of course, will be funding the homestead exemption. It's possible residential properties will see an increase in their property tax due to the fact we will not collect the sales tax needed to fund the 100 percent homestead exemption."

The county depends on a homestead option sales tax, or HOST, to fund its maintenance and operations, or M&O, portion of its budget. Those proceeds are used to roll back the M&O portion of residential property tax bills to zero. County residents approved the HOST in a 2001 referendum and have enjoyed the 100 percent HOST exemption on their tax bills since collections took effect in 2003.

The special purpose local option sales tax was passed by voter referendum in 2004 to fund $99 million in capital improvement projects. The largest projects were $26 million for a jail expansion and $40 million in road resurfacing and intersection improvements.

Both sales tax programs have averaged anywhere between $12 million and $14 million in annual collections until this year. Wilson said collections through September show HOST at $11.6 million and SPLOST at $10.4 million.

The current $52 million budget took a hit earlier this year with a dip in tax revenue that caused the county to impose a hiring freeze. The biggest blow came in August when Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue withheld $428 million in state homestead exemption grants, credits given to homeowners on their tax bills.

Perdue cited the state's own budget crisis for freezing the homestead grants. Rockdale County dipped into its cash reserves to cover the loss of $2.25 million.

"That was something we could not foresee in the 2008 budget as it was announced late in the year," Wilson said. The loss of the state grants forced the county to dip into its cash reserves to cover the gap.

Another issue from the state is the loss of unidentified sales tax, for which the county typically receives a check every six months with both the SPLOST and HOST. The state Department of Revenue collects sales taxes for the counties. Since different tax programs tax different items, officials normally come across money from counties that they cannot identify. That money was issued to the counties separately until the state stopped issuing those checks earlier this year.

Locally, staffing the new county jail expansion and two new fire stations is the biggest challenge in the budget process.

Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington requested 27 jail deputies for next year. The BOC approved funding of 33 positions in 2008 in anticipation of the jail expansion, Wilson said.

Staff needs for the Hurst Road fire station have already been funded this year. Recruit training is continuing by the fire department to staff the other new fire station on Walker Road. The recruitment class is about 20, with a goal of having 12 firefighters to staff the fire station, Wilson said.

Jay Jones can be reached at jay.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.