Lower health care costs, SPLOST help keep Houston tax rate stable

WARNER ROBINS -- The Houston County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday expect to approve a $50.1 million budget that doesn’t require a tax increase, and one reason for that might be a healthier workforce.

For the first time he can remember, Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said health care claims are actually down this year. The county is self-insured, so it pays claims itself.

The county contributes a certain amount per employee each year to maintain the health care fund at the level needed. Because of the reduced claims this past year, Stalnaker said the county is putting in $1,000 less per employee into the fund for the upcoming fiscal year, a savings of $730,000.

Although Stalnaker allowed that part of it is chance, he also attributed the reduced claims to county workers taking better care of themselves.

“I think people are more health conscious now,” Stalnaker said. “They are more aware of trying to maintain their health.”

He said the county has some preventive initiatives, including twice-annual health screenings for employees, and it has worked out reduced-rate deals with fitness centers.

The general fund budget is about a $1 million less than the budget the county approved last year.

Another major factor in the budget, Stalnaker said, is the sales tax voters approved in March. The current tax, which expires Oct. 31, was primarily geared toward road widening. The new tax, however, includes items that take pressure of the general fund budget.

The sheriff’s department budget, for example, was cut from $8.9 million to $8.6 million. At last week’s public hearing on the budget, that prompted a resident to question why the county was making a significant cut to an area he considered the county’s most important responsibility.

Stalnaker said the reason is that the sheriff’s budget for the current fiscal year included money for new patrol cars. Because the new sales tax includes money for patrol cars, the county didn’t have to include that in the general fund budget.

The sales tax budget for the upcoming fiscal year also includes $667,823 for equipment the county would previously have had to pay for out of the general fund.

Without the health care savings, the March sales tax and what Stalnaker called the frugality of department heads and county employees, the county probably couldn’t have balanced the budget without a property tax increase, he said.

“If we had not had the year we had with health costs, the SPLOST and we had not had the great financial management, we would have not only looked at tax increases but furlough of employees.”

The budget includes a 3 percent cost of living raise for employees but no merit increases.

The proposed budget keeps the millage rate at 9.95. Houston County is the only county in the state with a tax cap, and the tax allowed is calculated through a complex formula that takes growth into account.

Under the tax cap, the county could have raised the millage rate to 11.04 mills. Stalnaker said keeping the rate more than a mill under the maximum is important because it allows a cushion in the event an increase is needed in the future. If the county kept the rate at what is allowed, it could find itself in a big predicament if it needed more revenue.

He also pointed out that unlike most other counties, the 1 percent local option sales tax in Houston County goes entirely to the board of education. When comparing tax rates, Stalnaker said it’s important to consider that fact because most counties use funds from the local option sales tax to keep property taxes lower.

The county will vote on the budget at a meeting to be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Houston County Annex Building on Carl Vinson Parkway. It will not be a public hearing.

The total budget to be approved will actually be $110 million. It includes separate funds such as the special purpose local option sales tax, along with self-sustaining funds such as the landfill, trash collection and water fund. Last year’s total budget was $104 million. Stalnaker said the increase is the result of rolling over some sales tax dollars that weren’t spent. Spending for all of the other funds that make up the total is either about the same or lower, he said.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.