Stephens Co. Commission Holds Millage Rate Hearings

County residents express frustration about a proposed millage rate increase by Stephens County Commissioners.

The county commission held the first two of three required public hearings on the proposed hike Monday at the historic courthouse.

The room was fairly full for Monday night’s second hearing of the day, with eight or so people speaking before commissioners, opposing the millage rate increase and expressing concerns about it.

To fund a budget approved by commissioners in a 4-1 vote last month, Stephens County has proposed raising the millage rate by 2.85 mills, taking it from 11.32 to 14.17 mills.

For a $100,000 home with no exemptions, a 2.85 mill increase would result in an increase of about $114 in the yearly tax bill to support county government services, not including the school system.

Pointing fingers at the county and the school board, Mary York said she is frustrated with how local government is operating.

“I want to thank Congress for sending their people down here and the Obama people because sometimes I feel like we are running the county just like Congress, not very well,” said York.

A number of speakers said they are upset about the decision by Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley, Tax Commissioner Dene Hicks, Clerk of Court Tim Quick, and Probate Judge Glenda Ernest to each submit letters to the county threatening litigation if the county commission cut their budgets by six percent as the commission requested of them in a January memo

The four constitutional officers said there is no way they could have operated their departments on a six percent cut and cite state law that requires the county commission to provide constitutional officers with a reasonable budget to run their departments, while noting no county department could cut six percent from its budget.

However, Darlene Johnson said the constitutional officers are not the only ones that are elected.

“You guys are elected too, to handle our money,” said Johnson to the commission. “I wish I could sue my boss to get what I want, but I cannot. I would get fired.”

Other speakers expressed concerns about other departments.

Larry Krul pointed at the animal shelter, noting that it was supposed to run completely off private funds after three years and 1 1/2 years into that three-year period, private funding is nowhere close to providing enough funding to run the shelter.

Meanwhile, Terri Bruce said taxes in other counties are much lower and asks why the Stephens County Development Authority needs $180,000 in county funds.

“If it worked, it would be wonderful, but it won’t work. There is nothing here,” said Bruce. “Businesses are closing down.”

However, Andy Pavliscsak supported funding the Development Authority, stating that when the economy is bad is when efforts have to be increased to try and attract business to the community.

Pavliscsak said he does have concerns about some of the county’s property values, using the Currahee Club as an example.

“When I see a 400-acre tract of land valued at $2,123,535, I have to ask myself, ‘Is the tax burden being spread fairly across the gamut with all the taxpayers?’,” said Pavliscsak.

Pavliscsak specifically questioned two lakefront tracts on Currahee Club property each valued at $1,000 per acre.

Commissioners also held a first public hearing Monday morning, where only one person spoke.

Art Conway said he is concerned about the size of the jump being made in the millage, especially when considering that the school board is also considering a 1.6 mill increase of its own.

“Perhaps the school board was in trouble because they made some errors,” said Conway. “Perhaps you all are not in trouble because you have not made errors, or the errors have not been known about as far as needing more money all of a sudden. We will just see what comes out. I am upset at the great rise, the 2.85.”

Stephens County Administrator Phyllis Ayers said that the county is not facing this decision because of any sort of accounting errors or similar issues.

“We are audited by a third party accounting firm,” said Ayers. “The (most recent) audit is available on the website with any findings or anything that may be against the county. We are not looking at accounting errors. This is clearly a property digest issue, along with the debt at the jail, over five years not having a mill increase and trying to decide something as difficult as do we close the library or continue to fund it with a millage rate (increase).”

Meanwhile, the other three commissioners who voted for that budget, Michelle Grafton, Dean Scarborough, and Dennis Bell, all say that they are willing to continue to look at the budget, but note lowering the mill increase would require significant cuts.

Commissioner Stanley London voted against the budget last month because of the millage rate increase.

County commissioners have announced a called meeting for Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the historic courthouse to look at the budget again.

Meanwhile, a third public hearing on the proposed millage rate increase is set for July 22 at 5 p.m. at the historic courthouse in downtown Toccoa before an expected vote on the millage rate.

Commissioners can decide to set a millage rate lower than the currently proposed 14.17 mills provided they also amend the budget to reflect the corresponding cuts in revenues and expenditures.