Proposed tax increase from Houston commissioners draws fire

PERRY – Houston County commissioners heard from six residents Tuesday morning during a discussion of the proposed 8 percent increase in the county’s budget for 2010 and the commissioners’ plan to increase property taxes to cover it.

The common public refrain was to trim the budget to avoid the tax increase.

“We’re in the worst recession in 50 years,” said Kathleen’s Don Williams. “To reach into any taxpayer’s pocket to take away a penny more is not relating to the current situation. Since August of 2007 my motto has been, if you don’t eat it, you don’t need it. I’m cutting to the bone in my world, and I’m looking for you to join me.”

Commission Chairman Ned Sanders said the proposed general fund budget for fiscal 2010, which begins July 1, is $53.4 million. He said half of the 8 percent increase is due to two capital projects — $1.8 million for a warning system for the county and $2 million to add to $4 million in sales tax funding to pay for a 160-bed expansion of the jail.

Sanders also said health insurance costs for the county’s 613 covered employees have risen 11 percent, so it will now cost the county $11,700 per full-time employee.

Voters approved a one-year, half-mill increase in property taxes to pay for the warning system in November. But Sanders said another half-mill increase is needed to finish funding the budget.

“We made every effort to keep the millage increase as low as possible,” said Sanders, who pointed out where commissioners had held the line on costs by:

Ÿ Eliminating merit and longevity pay raises for county employees for the year.

Ÿ Putting cost of living adjustments on hold until at least until January.

Ÿ Eliminating two open positions.

Ÿ Limiting the purchase of new vehicles to public safety and cutting the request for new sheriff’s cars in half to seven.

“We are fortunate not to be in a crisis position as are other cities and counties,” Sanders said. “We do not need to do furloughs, we don’t need massive layoffs and we won’t have to make people work holidays without pay.

“But the county has to meet its obligation to fund mandated services. We’ve scrutinized this budget as much as I’ve seen a budget scrutinized before,” he said.

Sanders also said commissioners don’t believe a one-mill increase will be overly burdensome on taxpayers.

“That will be a $58 increase for the year on a $150,000 home,” he said.

But residents at Tuesday’s meeting disagreed.

Walton Wood of Kathleen said the county tax increase isn’t the only one homeowners face.

“The school board is considering increasing its rate one to two mills, so that’s another $80 or so on top of your $58. And the state Legislature did away with homestead exemptions, so we’re all going to be paying $200 to $300 more because of that. That all adds up to more than $400 more in property taxes this year, and that’s more than many people can stand,” Wood said. “I wouldn’t want you to fire employees to avoid $58 more in taxes, but there has to be other ways to cut costs, even if it hurts.”

Alan Gardner of Warner Robins suggested that commissioners consider shifting some of the medical insurance costs to employees.

“Paying $11,700 per employee seems extremely high. You should search for cheaper plans,” Gardner said. “And the employees should take a greater burden for their health-care costs. Private companies have been doing that for years.”

Becky Wood objected to using $2 million from the general fund generated from property taxes to pay for the jail expansion.

“Voters approved the $4 million in the SPLOST for the jail with the understanding we wouldn’t have to pay for it with property taxes,” she said. “So you are breaking faith with the voters doing this.”

David Wittenburg and Maurice Braswell also told commissioners they should look for ways to trim the budget.

“You say $58 more doesn’t hurt, but it does. Adding $29 for the warning system hurts. Even $10 or $5 more hurts some,” Braswell said. “You’ve got to look into other ways to spend less and help us out.”

Sanders said commissioners will continue to work on the budget until their next meeting June 16, when they are scheduled to vote on it. But he gave little hope there will be significant cuts before then.

In other action Tuesday, commissioners:

Ÿ Approved hiring a full-time security officer at $14.46 an hour for the Magistrate Court.

Ÿ Accepted the low bid of $16,000 for a new Ford Escape sport utility vehicle for the Environmental Health Department from Peach County Ford.

To contact writer Chuck Thompson, call 923-6199, extension 235.