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Meetings

PUBLIC HEARING
10:00 AM, JULY 21, 2011

Chairman Wallace Mathis called the Public Hearing to order at 10:00 a.m. with Commissioners A. James Nance, and Clark Henderson in attendance. Others present were County Administrator Lester E. Crapse, Jr., Finance Director Sherrie Leverett, and Secretary Linda Finch.

Administrator Crapse reported that the purpose of the public hearing is to get public comment on the millage tax increase, and the information that we will be talking about today has been provided for public review. The budget that we established for the General Fund, which is what we will be talking about primarily today, as that is what is affected by the millage, is $703,000 less than the FY-11 budget. The issue that we have been dealing with for some time is not additional spending but the lack of revenues, partially because of the drop in the net digest, partially due to the moratorium on revaluation, and a number of other factors that we cannot control, such as gas. We have also had to increase our health insurance premiums for both the county and county employees because of the rise in healthcare. The realities of everyday life is making it difficult to do business as usual, but we have done a number of things that we will be happy to address if anyone has specific questions. He stated that the one mill increase is a pretty modest increase, and the first millage increase since 2001; even with the millage increase, it is still lower than the 2003 millage rate. Also, the Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) is included in the general fund and is a rollback in property tax, and when LOST revenues go down, we don't get that money in the general fund, and LOST makes up 16% of our general fund budget. The combination of all these things have really eaten us alive. In 2009, we took about $900,000 out of reserves, 2010 we took about $675,000, and the books aren't closed on 2011 yet, but it looks like it is going to be about $900,000, plus we have about $328,000 of reserves in the 2012 budget. This causes a real strain on emergency funds; the standard is that we should have four months of operating revenue in reserves, and to the county that means about $4.8 million as a minimum. Where we stand now, because we have used over $3 million of those reserves, and the way the tax cycle works, if we continue on our current path, when we get to the end of October, our reserves will be down to about six weeks of operating capital as opposed to four months. We have used our rainy day funds down below the limit; it is a risky business to live like this, especially if we have a tornado like they did in Americus a few years ago and not have reserves to respond to that in an appropriate manner. That is why reserves funds are extremely important. Chairman Mathis opened the public hearing and stated that it is unfortunate that economic times are bringing us where we are at now and hopefully within the next couple of years if we can get the Inland Port going and other features of the county doing better since we now have our interstate back open, we can turn this around. Carden Summers asked what was the total county budget, including Sheriff's Department, as the figures on the sheet that was given out are about $14 million, and he knows it is more than that. Administrator Crapse stated that it is more than that, but only the general fund is affected by property tax; the total budget for the general fund is $14,621,913, but the total budget is about $21 million. Commissioner Henderson stated that before he became a Commissioner he was under the impression that the property ad valorum taxes paid a larger portion of the general fund budget, but we can't fund this county with ad valorum tax, the LOST helps a lot. He asked Mrs. Leverett how much money will the property tax bring in this year, and she advised that the amount of money that the general fund will get from the property taxes are $6,287,869. Mr. Summers stated that his concern is that population wise this county has not grown in forty years, we have lost industry in this community, people and corporations across the board are cutting back, and he owns property in about seven counties around us and every county has dropped the valuation of his property except Crisp County. We are dealing with about 1/3 of the population of this county paying the ad valorum taxes in this county; raising the millage one mill, along with the tax assessment being raised every year, he doesn't see any turn around. He stated that we have to curtail spending, and the situation is going to get worse; there is no way you are going to curtail spending unless you stop spending, park vehicles, look at personnel and at other different facets of the budget. He can't afford more taxes, and he doesn't want to pay for everybody else that is not paying, plus $6 million in taxes is a lot of money for a county that has not grown in forty or fifty plus years people-wise. What happens now, do we get re-evaluated again, even though you are going to raise a mill, the assessment is going to change, and I guarantee you that taxes are going to go up again in the next few years, because the only way that you can get money is SPLOST, LOST, and ad valourm tax other than the little revenues coming in from other departments and the state. Administrator Crapse stated just for the record taxes did not go up in 2009 or 2010, and there has been a moratorium on assessments for two years unless something was added to the property. Commissioner Henderson advised that the county got fined last year about $26,000 by the State of Georgia because we are required to maintain our assessments at 40%, it dropped to 32% because those assessments were not kept up to date, and we have got to bring our assessments back to 40%. We had to do the reassessment we are doing now, and it doesn't mean that your taxes are going to go up individually, but we have got to get the ones that are under assessed to 40%. Susan Wright advised that some of the properties in the county are not valued what the county has them valued at, and Mr. Henderson said the reassessment should readjust those values. Robert Powell stated that everybody has a misconception that the Board of Assessors set the taxes; the County Commissioners set the taxes. James Hurt stated that they have had to cut back because of their income, and if they have to cut back, the county needs to cut back; work on the budget, go through it line by line, cut it down to where we don't have to have an increase because we haven't got it. You are taxing our land and property away from us with taxes. Ron Milan asked what was paid out of the general fund, and Administrator Crapse advised all of the operating expenses of the county and there has been a line-by-line budget in the finance department available for review for two months now. He advised that in 2008 the digest was $557 million, 2009 it was $552 million, 2010 it was $541 million, and 2011 it was $534 million, and that is a $20 million drop in these three years. Connie Carney stated that they have lived in their house three years, every year the taxes went up, we protested the tax bill and our taxes were knocked down. Mr. Summers stated that none of his properties in the county have come down, he has tried to get rid of them, but he can't. He runs three businesses to survive as he can't survive in Crisp County, he did what he had to do and cut own things out just to get by. Mr. Powell stated that we can't keep funding larger and larger government or we won't be able to survive therefore government will not be able to survive because you will not be able to get anything else from us. Mrs. Wright asked what areas in the budget are staying status quo are being cut. Chairman Mathis stated that fuel is up which affects our road crews and deputies who patrol our county; we are looking at purchasing smaller cars, and the bad thing about what we are going to tell you is the same thing that everybody in this room is experiencing in their own home or business. We are taking cuts from not only SPLOST and LOST, but also state and other areas. Mr. Powell asked why weren't all five Commissioners here, this is a major issue, we pay your salaries as Commissioners, and we expect something in return. He stated that this Commission, the Administrator, and the Finance Director have failed as you said four years ago this trend began and not one time in four years have they, as he sits on the Tax Assessors' Board, been asked to cut or control expenses. The hole you are in is a result of not doing anything then, and the easiest way for governmental agencies is to raise taxes. You have got to cut spending, and after the revaluation is over in two years, a lot of property values will go up, but a lot of values will come down, so are you going to roll back this millage rate? Look at the budget and the increase in payroll, why do we have a cost of living increase in rough times. Chairman Mathis stated that the employees did get a 1% COLA increase plus furlough days built into the budget after the first of the year, and they are having to pay more into the health insurance plan. Mr. Powell stated that he understands wanting to do that, but he is doing his best to keep his employees a job. Mr. Summers stated that the health insurance is just for your employees and the Crisp County Power Commission employees, it is not for others in this room, you should give them that choice to go somewhere else to get insurance or pay for it here instead of making the taxpayers pay for the health insurance. Mr. Powell asked what was the deductible for health insurance, and the Administrator stated that employees have a choice of either $500 or $1000 deductible. Administrator Crapse stated in regards to Mrs. Wright's question about if any budgets had gone down or stayed the same; he began with Administrator's/Commissioners budget had gone down $150,000 less than last year; maintenance of all county buildings up $1,000; Finance Department down $11,000 over last year to name a few, and stated that our county employees are not paid what you may think they are. Mr. Summers stated that they are trying to tell them to take their Commission hats off, we just can't afford more taxes; let some people go, cut back on their hours. Everything is still like it was when he was a Commissioner, roads, landfill, and we still have a lot of trash, the employees may have grown, but nothing has changed in the community. Chairman Mathis stated that we bury the city's garbage at no charge by a contract that was made ten days before he came into office, and Mr. Summers stated that was an agreement we had. Chairman Mathis stated that this year for the first time, the Assessors' Office had to send out notices to all property owners in the county, which was a cost to send out about 12,000 notices, that was mandated and the Tax Assessors Board nor our Board did not have any control over it. That is another directive from Atlanta that we the taxpayers got that we have no control over. Mr. Powell stated that this is a hard decision, it is not just employees salaries, it is turning down of expenses; the Sheriff's department needs to be patrolling instead of sitting out on I-75 as they have had theft after theft where he lives. That department's budget goes up every year, and you have the ability to not give them money, and sometime it is cheaper to pay some attorneys a lot of money and keep it down; we have got to cut pure expenses. He stated that the reserves are a concern, it should be; the Administrator fighting for employees, and if I were in his position, I would be doing the same thing, but it is time now to start cutting as this falls on a few of us. Mr. Summers stated that we are here as your constituents, and if you were sitting where we are, the Commissioners would have the same thoughts they are having. Francis Carswell stated that she is most concerned about the absence of her other two Commissioners, if they can't satisfy their elected obligations to them, then they need to take a stand and say they will be here and tend to your business or they need to resign so that somebody else can tend to the business. She would respectfully request that some action be taken on when they have a meeting they are here or their wish is known. The second observation is you have two more hearings, and between now and the July 28th meeting, her request is they take a very sharp scalpel to this budget line-by-line, and at that meeting show us your good faith by finding something. You can't tell me that there is not something in this budget that can't go. Her heart goes out to the employees but consider cutting out maybe 1%, she doesn't know how the shared health care works perhaps giving them a greater portion of their health care, but by the July 28th meeting is it unreasonable to ask them to come back with something that is revised or legally unavoidable. Mrs. Carney asked what the county was doing to solicit businesses to come into the county. Chairman Mathis advised that Bruce Drennan is the director of our Economic Development, and the county is doing the demolition for Darton College. She wanted to know if they are offering tax incentives to get people to come to work here, and do we have other things that are going to bring people in to shop. Chairman Mathis advised that they do have incentives for businesses. Mr. Henderson reported that at the IDC meeting last month, Mr. Drennan reported that Owens Corning will be finishing their building, as they still have an intention of coming here, plus there is a company that has already purchased a building as a result of the Inland Port. Mr. Nance stated that there is a process that they go through, and we do offer several incentives as revolving loans, tax abatements, and work with the state office in terms of economic development to put packages together. Administrator Crapse stated that Georgia is number three in terms of people like to do business with, but the bad side of this is that the #1 and #2 states are our neighboring states of Florida and Alabama. That is what we have to deal with, but one of the big advantages is that we do have job tax credits, which is another thing that we offer people when they come here. He stated that there is a huge package that is put together and it also depends on how much help we get from the state. For the Inland Port, we received about $800,000 from the state to fix the railroad, they received a revolving loan fund, and a small business loan; all these things are available, and we have also gotten our credentials as a work ready community by assessing people and their skills. The encouragement is always there that we can develop any kind of a tailored package for anybody that wants to locate here. It is not only here that businesses are closing, it is all over the state. We also have ads on the state website as well as our own website addressing industry. Mrs. Wright asked that they cut back and live within the money they are receiving right now; don't ask them for more money. Mr. Nance stated that he knows about furlough days as he and his wife both have them, his income has reduced, and he certainly understands how tough it is. This has been a process, one of the things we have done is try to build up a surplus, so we tried to take this and help balance our budgets to give people a savings over the years, and as we have done that over the last several years our money has dwindled down, but he is committed to looking at it but we have already gone through a process to get here today. William Turner stated that about 30% of the county's tax base are retired people as people who get an education leave here, and to people on fixed income $40 is a pretty good bit in a year. He asked that they look at what the tax base is here; we can't keep increasing, as we don't have it. Mr. Henderson stated that this process that we just went through was the worst that he could ever image, and the state is cross shifting as they are cutting and shifting it to the counties. We were faced with closing Sams Shortline because the state had cut the money by a mere $5,000, so we did add that to our budget as you know how much revenue the county gets from those two weekends with Thomas The Train. Also the state cut more funding for the Health Department that we weren't able to add. He is for reducing things, and he doesn't know where we go with it, but ad valorum taxes is not going to save us. Mr. Powell stated that they are going to have to take hard lines, and he thinks there are plenty of areas in the budget that can be addressed to bring the budget in. Show us somewhere that you can be hard-nosed people, and if the difference in the millage rate compared to the general fund is 3/5%, then cut every line item by 3.5%. Gladys Bishop stated that the county employees did get a 1% cost of living raise, but there are taking furlough days, and that is not giving them anything, probably taking away from them and washes out the 1% COLA. The county employees includes Commissioners, Administrator, and if the Commissioners don't show up for the meeting, pay them so much a meeting. Administrator Crapse advised that the Commissioners salaries are set by the state. Mr. Milan asked who goes over the budget for each department, and Mr.. Nance advised that the administrator, finance director, constitutional officers, and the board. Mr. Milan asked if any department has ever returned any money back to the county, and Chairman Mathis stated that is how the reserves have been built up when it was not used. The Administrator advised that the county uses a zero based budget where everybody has to justify everything on the new budget. Chairman Mathis advised that we sat here a few months ago with a good many of the same people here when we were talking about Darton College and the Inland Port, all that money doesn't come out of just SPLOST, and hopefully things are going to turn around next year, we have got to keep trying and hoping that the Inland Port can help us. He stated that we tried to meet your wishes at that meeting, none of that is free; the budget is down from last year and the reason taxes are going up to try to make some of this money up that has been lost. Also, a man stood in the middle of the aisle at that meeting and said if it makes our taxes go up, we still want this project; that is not what is making all of this tax increase, but the investment that we are trying to make with your money in your community is where it is coming from. Mr. Henderson advised that the Administrator sent out memos to all county employees reiterating the county's policy for conducting county business only in county vehicles a few months ago, but he or the Commissioners have any right to tell the Constitutional Officers how to spend their money. Mr. Powell stated that none of them have any problem with the people using the vehicles that have to use them, but the point is that there are ways that it can be tighten down. Mr. Henderson stated that he is listening, and this is not a done deal. Mr. Milan asked if there was a tracking system on the vehicles to keep up with the fuel and where they are going, and Administrator Crapse advised that we do not have GPS on our vehicles because it costs money. Chairman Mathis stated that we do have a fuel system at public works. Administrator Crapse stated that they system tells us every day who puts gas in the car, how much they put in, how much it costs, and how much mileage they put on that vehicle; we do monitor this on a monthly basis. We have instituted a no idle policy, a policy of going to smaller vehicles, and working on trying to set a baseline on county vehicles in terms of what kind of vehicle they can buy depends on how much mileage it gets; we are not sitting here idle nor or have we been sitting idle for four years. He has been doing this for fourteen years, this is the first time he has gone through a tax increase, and it is not pretty; we have been tightening up for a good many years, especially after 2009 when it really hit us hard. He stated that we have lost some employees by attrition, but we do those as a normal course of business, everything we do revolves around money and how to save money, we have a purchase order system that every purchase has to have some level of approval, and bid out our gas and diesel every time we buy it. Mr. Powell reiterated to Commissioners to look at it before the 28th; Commissioners there are places in there that you thought somebody needed, all the good ole boy things need to go out the door, this is belt tightening. Administrator Crapse advised that there is not one Commissioner asked to have anything put in this budget for any department. Laura Lee Hurt asked if the county offices were mandated by the state to stay open, like on Friday afternoon as that would help. The Administrator advised that Constitutional Officers generally have hours set by state statue, and people now demand more customer service, not less. Mrs. Carswell asked if they at this time have a budget cutting examination session planned, and Chairman Mathis advised that they have done that for two months before they got to this point. She asked if they were planning on having another one since they see they are unhappy, and Mr. Henderson stated that he has no problem with that. She advised that is her request is that sometime between now and the 28th that they look one more time. Mr. Henderson stated that Solid Waste Management Authority is a subdivision of the county, and he suggested to the Board that we move the Solid Waste Management office to an office in the Government Center, and the county is getting $10,300 a year in rent that goes into the county coffers as a result of us moving that office here. Mr. Powell, Mr. Summers, and Mr. Turner thanked Commissioners for their time. Jerry Carney stated that his concern is that you are not going to reassess the west side of town and raise it, and if there is a reassessment and it is raised anywhere, it is going to be raised in the gold or blue areas or wherever, which means, once again, out of a portion basis for a level of services we receive, we are paying more for the same or less. His concern is the equalization issue, and having a distribution of the taxes set in certain areas of the county, they are not receiving the services that he thinks he should receive where he lives. When he looks at what he gets in his area as far as services, etc. that again on a proportional basis, the people that have the higher values are going to pay the most taxes, but redistribution of that monies is skewed too far, and somebody needs to take a look at that in regards to the level of services that are received out in the gold or blue areas to see that they are treated equal. Administrator Crapse advised that is done each year, it is called a Sales Tax Ratio Study; it is based on sales of houses in your particular area, not to another house in another area of the county. Our sales ratio dropped to 32%, it is suppose to be 40% and you get fined if you are below 38% or above 42%; now as the result of the declining property values, our new sales ratio is up to 34% this year, and we didn't do anything but we did get closer to the ratio because of the declining values of homes. You have to be equalized, but the rules say it has to be apples to apples when they compare your house. Chairman Mathis agreed with Mr. Carney, this is the biggest problem he has with the budget as people like him doesn't really require a lot of service, such as someone to cut your grass, a deputy, a jail cell, or a court system, there is a small percent of the population that will not follow the rules, but all law abiding citizens have to pay for that. Mr. Carney thinks that almost a 10% increase overnight does hurt the poor, people that are living on the edge on their mortgage payments, etc. A little at the time is a whole lot better than a whole lot at once, especially to people that have to make adjustments in an economy that is in difficult shape. Administrator Crapse advised that this one mill increase is not based on anything in the future. There were no further questions, so Chairman Mathis closed the public hearing at 12:20 p.m.

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