COVINGTON — County commissioners Tuesday night approved the rollback millage rate of 11.54 mils by a vote of 4 to 1, despite public outcry against the move at the public hearing prior to the meeting and citizens’ comments during the meeting. Commissioners also approved a fiscal year 2014 operating budget of $45,952,201.
The motion to approve the millage rate, made by District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz, included the stipulation that commissioners begin strategic budget planning beginning Aug. 16 with the goal of reducing the millage rate within two years.
The motion was approved by Commissioners Lanier Sims, J.C. Henderson and Levie Maddox. District 1 Commissioner John Douglas was the sole dissenter.
The rollback rate will mean an increase in property taxes of about $27 for a house valued at $100,000.
Schulz said the rollback rate — the millage rate needed keep revenues at the same level as the prior year — should fluctuate based on the tax digest. When revenues increase, the board should reduce the rate, she said.
“If there’s such a thing as a temporary tax I’ve never seen it, and I’ve been in government for a long time,” Douglas responded.
Douglas made a substitute motion to retain the current millage of 10.91 mils, but it died for lack of a second.
Schulz said the board has made deep cuts each of the past five years and the county is now operating on $10 million less than when she took office.
She said that each year, the board has asked department heads to make major cuts “that fall largely on the backs of county employees who themselves pay taxes and try to put food on the table.”
“All citizens,including those of us on this board, want the assurance that we will have safe water, safe roads and bridges, courts, law enforcement, fire and emergency protection, solid waste management and recreational opportunities,” she added. “We want the assurance that those services will be provided efficiently and cost effectively. We cannot afford to continue a trend of cutting expenses and jeopardizing our viability as a county. Likewise, we cannot place an undue burden on our taxpayers or businesses.”
Schulz said citizens don’t trust the board to lower the millage when property values increase. She proposed a long-term strategic plan that would, in part, insure financial solvency, lessen the tax burden on private property owners, develop new revenue streams and boost economic development.
Some citizens told board members they wouldn’t vote for them come election time if they approved the rollback rate.
Schulz said that, “This is not about the next election but about protecting the future for generations to come.”
Sims pushed for a firm date on when strategic planning will begin, saying the board has promised before to do planning that never happened. Commissioners agreed to begin the process at their Aug. 16 mini-retreat.
“I think this board has failed to plan for the future,” Sims said, adding the board should have been looking for ways to bring revenue other than raising property taxes.
Sims was also critical of the board’s handling of the 2011 SPLOST. Sims was not on the board when the SPLOST list of projects was finalized in 2010, but voted to pass the resolution calling for the referendum in 2011.
“There were some, I hate to say pet projects, but it is what it is,” he said. “I believe more money should have been put back towards debt service.”
Henderson responded that in order to pass SPLOST, “You’ve go to put items in SPLOST that people want to vote for … if there was so-called pork items in SPLOST it was the request of the people so they could vote for it,” he said. He said he supports the rollback rate because the county is struggling to maintain service levels.
Douglas said it all boiled down to whether the board is leading a smart government or lazy government.
“There is a huge difference. Smart government makes do with the resources on hand. We count the money available and make the budget fit the money we have,” he said.
He later added that a lazy government “writes a budget and then decides if it has money to pay the bills. When we find it is not, we just go take the money we need to make the new budget work.”
Maddox stressed that the rollback rate does not bring in more revenue than last year.
“It absolutely does not grow our government,” he said.
Maddox said auditors believe the county will be in financial trouble until at least 2015. Maddox said he cannot support dipping into the fund balance, which is currently at 17 percent, on the low end of what’s recommended.
“My approach puts community above self. I feel like if I don’t support this budget then I lose credibility and integrity and I refuse to do that,” he said.
Chairman Keith Ellis reminded the crowd that he had previously proposed two options that would have kept the millage the same. The first was a five percent cut to all departments and appropriations, which was supported by Douglas. The second would have required the county to dip into the fund balance, which affects the county’s credit rating and ability to borrow. The board was warned several years ago by auditors about the county’s low fund balance. No commissioners supported that option.
Ellis said the board is looking at ways to be more cost efficient, such as reducing utility bills in county facilities by 5 percent. Next year, the board may try zero based budgeting.
“If it is a zero-based budget, we’ll start at zero and work in the other direction. Some say in other governments, in other counties, it has worked for them,” he said, promising to “look under every rock” for ways to save money.