Stephens Co. Millage Rate Could Be On Rise

Stephens County property owners may see an increase of just over three mills in the county’s property tax millage rate this year, based on the current proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

County commissioners met to discuss the budget during two days of meetings Monday and Tuesday.

Stephens County Administrator Phyllis Ayers said that based on the opinions expressed by a majority of the commission during those budget meetings, the proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget for Stephens County is being built on the premise of a millage rate increase of 3.19 mills.

Ayers said that the county looked at trying to cut six percent from department budgets in an effort to avoid a millage rate increase.

However, she said doing that would require the county to cut significant services in a number of departments.

“It was coming down to some pretty hard decisions on what to offer and not to offer and I would say that I left (Tuesday) and the board, one thing they were all agreed on is that they did not want to skimp on the services currently being offered to the citizens,” said Ayers.

If approved later this year, this would be the first millage rate increase for the county since calendar year 2008.

Ayers said that the biggest financial challenge the county faces is declining revenues due to an ongoing overall drop in property values since Fiscal Year 2010.

“Right now, we have had a declining digest, which is the value of the property out there,” said Ayers. “(That) is the baseline, there are lot of variables in it, such as exemptions, economic values, that when multiplied by that millage rate, gives us a property tax revenue number,” said Ayers. “That (digest) has declined 15 percent since Fiscal Year 2010 and when that declines and we did not increase our millage rate. Therefore, property tax revenue declines.”

In addition to that, Ayers said that the county’s undesignated fund balance, which the county has used to cover budget shortfalls in recent years, has been used up.

Ayers explained that the remaining fund balance the county has is all already designated to either cover the county’s expenses until tax revenues come in each year or for some other needed future expense, like landfill closure or an eventual planned death penalty trial in the county.

Meanwhile regarding expenditures, Ayers said the biggest challenge is the debt owed by the county on the construction of the new jail years ago.

“About .75 mills is the debt at the jail that we have been discussing for years that will be with this county until 2022,” said Ayers.

That jail debt payment is going to be about $447,000 in the upcoming fiscal year.

Ayers said there are other increases in the proposed county budget as it stands right now.

“The biggest (additional) expenditure overall would be four deputies, (which) are being requested by the Sheriff’s Department, and their benefits and the increase in the Stephens County Development Authority (allocation),” said Ayers.

The sheriff’s deputies would cost an additional $163,303 and the Development Authority allocation is being increased from $50,000 to $180,000.

“The Development Authority has been doing the same thing the county government has been doing and that is using available fund balance,” said Ayers. “They are starting to get low in cash on their side”

Ayers said there are some departments with smaller increases that are necessary because of mandates.

However, she said many other departmental budgets are proposed to stay flat.

She said one department that will be decreasing under the proposed budget is the animal shelter.

Ayers said the county is proposing to spend less on the shelter and animal control combined than the approximately $250,000 that was spent this year.

“Funding for the humane shelter and animal control together will be $150,000,” said Ayers.

The city of Toccoa is also proposing to budget $150,000 for the shelter and animal control combined in FY 2015.

Work is ongoing to finalize the proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget, which Ayers said is being put together based on how the majority of commissioners felt on each particular issue.

Ayers is scheduled to present the proposed budget on Tuesday. Adoption is set for June.

Meanwhile, an official vote on the millage rate comes after June.