BOC propose millage rate By Shannon Sneed

Former Commissioner Billy Webster is the lone wolf who spoke at a recent public hearing where he suggested board members focus on keeping expenditures down instead of raising rates.

Two citizens showed up for the first public hearing to discuss adopting Putnam County’s 2018 millage rate Aug. 31 and commissioners met with an empty house at the second hearing later that evening. Based on a proposed $18,887,288 budget, the Putnam County Board of Commissioners recently announced an increase in the property taxes it will levy this year by 1.73 percent above the rollback millage rate for the incorporated area and 5.12 percent above the rollback millage rate for the unincorporated area. If those rates are adopted at the final public hearing on Sept. 8, the millage rate for the incorporated area will be 8.999 mills, an increase from last year of .153 mill and 8.701 mills for the unincorporated area, an increase of .424 mills. Speaking during the public comment session, former Commissioner Billy Webster challenged the BOC to focus on cutting back their spending instead of raising millage rates. Webster said looking back over totals in 2011 versus 2016, expenditures went up an average of .8 percent per year. He also noted that from 2016 through 2018, they went from .8 percent per year to about 4 percent. “The expenditures are going up and the revenues are going down,” said Webster. “It seems like we ought to be concentrating an equal amount of time on looking at reducing expenditures as well as the amount of time we are spending on raising the millage rate and revenue.” The Taxpayer Bill of Rights prevents indirect property tax increases resulting from increases to property values because of inflation, but state law allows municipalities and counties to "roll back" their millage rate after reassessment of property values to ensure local governments receive the same amount of revenue from property taxes after reassessment as they did before. A recent assessment indicated the trend of prices on properties recently sold in the county has increased in fair market value, calling for a rollback millage rate that will produce the same total revenue on this year’s tax digest that last year’s millage rate would have produced had no reassessments occurred. BOC Chairman Dr. Steve Hersey said the board, a couple of years ago, recognized there is an insurance premium tax collected by the Department of Revenue and sent back to counties and boards of education. Georgia State law requires Local Option Sales Tax proceeds must be used to roll back county and school millage rates. The Insurance Premium Tax proceeds must be used to fund one or more services in the unincorporated areas of the county including police protection, fire protection, garbage collection and other such services for the primary benefit of all the inhabitants of the unincorporated areas of the county. According to the Department of Revenue, if the insurance premium tax proceeds exceed the cost of the service, the unincorporated millage rate must be rolled back for any amount not expended. Hersey explained the DOR collects statewide about 2.5 percent of all insurance premiums except for life insurance that are bought and paid in the state of Georgia. The incorporated millage rate is higher than the unincorporated and the difference is that the insurance premium tax proceeds which exceed the cost of certain services that is rollback for the unincorporated residence. “As part of the proposed rate, which is revenue neutral, collecting the same amount of money this year as we did last year, the increase from the rollback rate for the unincorporated area is about 4 mils, but for the unincorporated area, it’s only about .17 mills,” Hersey said. There’s less of an increase going from the rollback rate to the proposed rate for the incorporated area. That is a reflection of the fact that the city does not take into account the insurance premium tax they get paid back. “The City of Eatonton gets that,” said Hersey. “But they never, for whatever reason, are required to list that as part of their rollback. In the past, it’s been controversial as to why the city has to pay a higher millage rate than the unincorporated area, well they wouldn’t if they included the insurance premium tax.” When he spoke, Webster also advised the insurance premium tax offset total is almost $823,000 or a .71 mill offset equivalent based on the unincorporated tax digest. “How are y’all going to use that?” asked Webster. “You can use it to offset the millage rate between the unincorporated and the incorporated or you can use it for those things that, according to the O.C.G.A. is primarily for the use of the unincorporated inhabitants.” Looking over the history of the millage rate, Paul Van Haute explained at the first public hearing that the proposed net millage rate ticks upward 8.701 from the net rate of 8.287 last year due to the $492,000 lost from the closure of Georgia Power’s Plant Branch. “Back in 2000, we were at 9.4 and kind of trended down,” said Van Haute, noting in 2008, the rate was 4.3 mills because that outgoing board of commissioners sabotaged the incoming board of commissioners. “They cut the millage rate to an unsustainable level,” said Van Haute, “and then the new commissioners had to come in and set the millage rate at 5.4 mils.” Van Haute advised that in 2013, the effect of the Georgia Power closure called for an increase of 2 mills. “We are still feeling the repercussions from that, not knowing when the hemorrhaging is going to start,” he said. Webster also suggested if commissioners were to use all of the insurance premium tax for an offset, they should be transparent for the public’s sake and document what they use for offsetting the millage rate and what they use primarily for unincorporated uses. A final public hearing will be held during the regular BOC meeting at 9 a.m., Friday, Sept. 8. The BOC is expected to set the millage rate later in that same meeting.

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