MONROE — The rising cost of — well, pretty much everything — is forcing the county government to collect more in property tax.
That’s the reasoning of Board of Commissioners Chairman Kevin Little, who led the first of three public hearings on the proposed 2017 millage rate Monday morning.
A rate of 11.325 mills is proposed across the county. Residents of Between, Good Hope, Jersey and Walnut Grove, and of unincorporated parts of the county, would have an additional 0.76-mill tax for fire service.
The rate is separate from the 21.6-mill rate imposed by the Walton County Board of Education. The Social Circle Board of Education uses a millage rate of 17.144.
Taking the rollback rate, or the rate needed to generate the same amount of revenue in the previous year, would see the county set a tax rate of 10.754 mills in the largest cities and 10.905 mills elsewhere.
Commissioners approved a $52.2 million budget in June, for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The first public hearing drew four citizens and a reporter, along with Little, Commissioner Timmy Shelnutt and county Chief Financial Officer Linda Hanna.
Little said the way state law requires the wording of the public notice about a tax increase is misleading. He said the rate of 11.325 mills is similar to last year.
A $100,000 house with no exemptions would pay $474.20 a year on a rate of 11.325 mills, and $483.40 at 12.085 mills with the fire service tax added.
Although the rates likely will be similar to last year, many owners have seen a change in their property values since last year.
“The Board of Commissioners don’t have any control whatsoever over your property values,” Little said. “That’s set by the tax assessors, who have an appeal process.
“Also, the Board of Commissioners don’t have any control or any say-so over the Board of Education. It’s an elected body, and they set their own millage rate to put it on the tax bill.”
Little said the biggest complaint he typically gets from citizens actually relates to the school portion of the tax bill.
“For every thousand dollars (in tax revenue), I get $300, and $700 goes to the schools,” he said, noting the meetings on the millage rate for both the county Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners had been advertised as required in The Walton Tribune.
Local resident Tim Thompson said the increase of value in his property, combined with the decision not to reduce the tax rate, was a double whammy.
“In reality, the amount of money is a small increase for the county portion, but combine that with property tax values increasing — although you have no effect on it, but mine alone is a 12 percent increase this year,” he said.
“We’re living in the same house. The personal homes are not income-producing. Nothing’s really changing in our lifestyle, and we get the same services from the county, yet we see a huge increase in the tax bill.
“Nothing’s really changing. We’re still living in the same house we did 10 years ago. So therefore anytime the property values are increasing, the reality is the millage rate should be drastically decreasing.”
But Little said the county government has “been very frugal with your money,” noting commissioners took the rollback rate from 2010-15 when the county was coming out of the Great Recession.
“One of our goals going into a budget is to try to keep the millage rate the same,” Little said. “I can’t operate the county and have the services that you need, and not have the money that we need to survive.
“Fire trucks were $375,000 five years ago; they’re $425,000 now, and we try to buy two a year. Ambulances that were $125,000, they’re right around $200,000 now. That’s the biggest concern everybody has is public safety, and if something happens and we need the money — we try to keep our equipment up, the deputy cars and things like that.”
Thompson said department heads in both the county government and school system should look for ways to cut expenses as a way to save money for taxpayers.
“Each department head level and above are responsible for controlling their costs to bring it back in line where it has no effect on the citizens,” he said. “The biggest way to accomplish that for department heads and above is, there are things that should drastically get cut. They can figure it out. That’s what they’re here for.”
Little said citizens receive value for the taxes they pay.
“Citizens complain all the time that they don’t get anything, but I would welcome anybody to come sit in my chair and see what all we do provide for the citizens,” he said.
“Everybody wants to come and say, ‘Well, I get nothing for my taxes.’ We’ve got 850 miles of county roads we have to upkeep. We have 16, 17 fire stations we have to run. We have deputy sheriffs you want. The cost of everything goes up, but everybody wants to come and complain about their taxes, yet when the road falls in … It’s easy to down the elected people that’s who’ve got the hard job. Yeah, if I’m on your side, I’d be standing here too saying, ‘Cut your taxes, cut your taxes,’ because I wouldn’t know what I have to do.
“But, I mean, I was very, very prideful for about four to five years because we kept the budget $48 (million) to $49 million. This was the first year in my whole time we went over $50 million, and it hurt.”
Little said the county has been “very, very frugal” since he became chairman in 2001.
“That’s the reason Walton County didn’t have the layoffs like all the counties around us did,” he said. “I grew up on a farm, and everybody that works for Walton County works. My department heads all work. There’s nobody sitting in my office in a coat and tie like the counties that touch us.”
No one attended a second public hearing Monday night, and a third is set for 5 p.m. Tuesday. The board is expected to vote on the proposed millage rate in the regularly scheduled meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.