Vastly higher property assessments and possible higher taxes are still on the minds of Effingham County citizens, who Thursday night let county commissioners know exactly what they were thinking.
In a meeting at the county administrative complex that was ostensibly for the hospital authority’s decision not to roll back its millage rate from 2 mills, residents questioned where the tax money is going and who is responsible for the higher taxes.
“The taxation in this county has gotten completely out of control,” said Jerry MacAtee, who has lived in the county for 11 years. The roads are no better to my house. I don’t understand where all the money is going to.”
The combination of higher assessments and the millage rate process has led to more questions and turmoil than in past years as residents try to figure at which body of government to point their inquiries. But county commission Chairwoman Verna Phillips sees the citizen involvement as a positive.
“They are asking good questions,” she said. “They are getting educated on the process, and knowledge is power. I have to give them credit for trying to understand because the process is complicated.”
County commissioners briefly went over their own budget, which has been trimmed to just over $28 million. The county’s millage rate has been rolled back to account for the estimated taxes to be brought in by the reassessments.
County officials, at the commissioners’ request, returned nearly $500,000 to the special local options sales tax proceeds that was going toward the purchase of vehicles. Instead, that money will come out of the general fund and the money will go to county buildings, such as the 911 center.
“There are some changes we have made to balance the budget to the rollback rate,” Williams said. “This is a work in progress.”
Of the proposed total millage rate of 29.911, the county’s millage of 8.913 is less than a third of it, commission Chairwoman Verna Phillips noted.
“Most of the public thinks we have control over the entire budget,” Commissioner Hubert Sapp said. “That’s not the case.”
Of the county’s budgeted expenses, approximately 60 percent goes into salaries and benefits.
“We have asked all the departments to withhold any increase in personnel,” Phillips said, “because that is a big expenditure.”
The recent property assessments also came under fire, and Phillips said she too has filed an appeal on her property value.
“We don’t have the answers, but we are working diligently to find the answers,” she said. “We are trying to do the best we can do.”
Richard Waters of Faulkville said his values have increased 80 percent since 2006.
“All of my neighbors are in the same boat,” he said.
Waters also criticized the assessment methods, saying established properties were being assessed according to new construction.
“The other entities need support,” he said. “But it seems we’re being taxed unfairly because of new construction. Three of my neighbors, their property increased by 80 to 90 percent. I don’t know what the answer is.”
Phillips said the assessment formulas are set by the state and she encouraged property owners upset with their new assessments to file an appeal by the June 5 deadline. Also, a study committee has been formed to review taxation statewide.
“It’s a big issue,” she said. “It’s a big issue across the state.”
State Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler) has introduced a measure to alleviate the property taxes for school systems for senior citizens, but he hasn’t gotten enough support for it, Waters said.
“I’ve got no objection to paying school taxes and paying for the education for the next generation. That benefits everyone,” Waters, 73, said. “But we need a break on it.”
The county holds hearings on behalf of the hospital and industrial authorities. The IDA’s millage rate is set by law at 2 mills and the hospital can levy up to 7 mills.
Hospital Chief Finance Officer Ed Brown said the millage rate helps cover the costs of uncompensated and indigent care. Last year, the cost of such care was $2.8 million, and the proceeds from the millage rate paid for about $1.2 million.
Brown also answered a query from Sapp on having one person — Hospital Administrator Norma Jean Morgan — collect two salaries. Morgan is also the nursing home administrator and must be licensed to do so, Brown pointed out.
“It’s actually below industry standards,” Brown said of Morgan’s pay as a hospital administrator. “You pay less for a hospital administrator and a nursing home administrator than you did when you paid two people to do two jobs.
“If our CEO got hit by a bus tomorrow, I could do the hospital administrator’s job,” Brown said. “But I could not do the nursing home administrator’s job because I am not licensed.”
The rollback of the millage not only affects the assessments on longstanding properties, but also on new construction.
“In essence, they are getting a tax break for the first year, and yours (taxes) are getting higher,” Sapp said.
Caroline Collins said the commissioners could have eased the burden on private property owners, but it has fought small business and developers.
“They could have helped and it wouldn’t have been on the taxpayers’ backs,” she said.
Following are the proposed millage rates for 2007 property taxes (for unincorporated portions of the county):