Tax revenues are expected to have slow growth this year in Houston County, which means another tough budget year.
It also means that county departments will likely have to continue to operate at the same personnel strength. The county has not approved new positions in several years, and that’s likely to continue without a millage rate increase.
The county is just now starting the process for formulating its budget for the upcoming fiscal year to begin July 1. Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker, who always issues words of caution as the budget year starts, gave an especially stark assessment last week.
“I am more concerned this year than I’ve ever been before in putting this budget together,” he said at the end of Tuesday’s commission meeting. “I’ve never felt the way I do this year going to this budget cycle. It is going to be gruesome.”
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He said county departments have some legitimate requests that would require new spending, including additional personnel positions. He asked the commissioners to weigh in on whether they wanted to continue the policy of keeping the millage rate the same, or raise taxes to fill the requests.
Each one favored holding the line on the tax rate.
“I think our citizens are experiencing the same conditions that we are,” said Commissioner Jay Walker. “We are in a very difficult environment financially. I’m committed to not raising taxes.”
Stalnaker said the tax digest, which tabulates the value of all property in the county, is expected to grow by 1 percent or less this year. That would equate to about $380,000 more in revenues, which he said is a meager amount with a general fund budget of about $52 million. The growth is consumed by the increased cost in health insurance and retirement costs, he said.
Stalnaker said this makes the fourth consecutive year that the tax digest has seen only slight growth.
“It’s not growing at the rate it needs to grow to take care of some of the requests these departments have got,” he said.
Stalnaker will soon begin meeting with department heads to discuss their budget requests, then the budget will be formulated for approval by the commissioners.
Anyone driving around Houston County might find it hard to believe that the tax digest isn’t growing. Many new commercial buildings have been constructed or are under construction. Stalnaker said he has wondered about that as well, but the tax assessors tell him that the growth from new construction is offset by declines in property values in other areas. When a house comes under foreclosure, he said, it might sell for half of its original value, and that drives down the value of homes around it.
Also, any construction seen now won’t actually be on the tax rolls until next year. He added that the county has lost significant revenue due to a change in how taxes on car purchases are done.
“We are continuing to grow but we are having losses in the devaluations, as well as the (motor vehicle tax),” he said.