County approves partial millage rollback

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

The Henry County Board of Commissioners voted July 29 approving a partial millage rollback, from 14.298 last year to 13.873. The vote was 4-2, with Chairman Tommy Smith and Commissioner Gary Barham voting against.

A total rollback would have reduced the number to 12.234, but county staff and most of the board agreed that the county’s $134.6 budget could not be funded properly that way.

Smith maintained throughout the final public hearing, as he had previously, that he felt the rollback should be total and that fund balance should be used to make up the shortfall. Most of his comments were during back-and-forth discussions with Commissioner Brian Preston, who wondered how Smith arrived at his conclusions after having a significant role in preparing the budget that was approved unanimously.

Barham did not comment during the July 29 hearing, which lasted about 30 minutes.

The unincorporated county millage is only a portion of the overall millage rate for citizens, as was pointed out by finance director Fred Auletta during a brief presentation. One mill equals one dollar per thousand dollars of assessed value for a piece of property.

Using the example of a $120,000 home, Auletta said that in 2014 the property tax bill would have been $1,626 with the county’s portion adding up to $471 or 29 percent of the total. If that home did not increase in value this year, the rollback to 13.873 would reduce the tax bill by $14 but all of that reduction would be on the county portion, since the millage rate for the Board of Education (20 mills), school bonds (3.628 mills) and water-sewer bonds (2 mills) are unchanged.

A $3,000 property value increase on the same house would result in a $31 overall tax increase but only $2.62 more on the county portion. Should the value rise to $130,000, the county millage would account for $41 out of a $140 overall increase.

“The only way they’re going to get a tax reduction is from the county,” Auletta said of these scenarios.

Total ad valorem tax levies now stand at 39.551 for the unincorporated county and for Stockbridge; 42.101 for McDonough; 37.764 for Hampton; and 37.753 for Locust Grove.

Auletta pointed out to the board that the average home value in the county, after peaking in 2008 at just over $180,000 and then dropping to $105,000 is now at about $141,000. He also reminded the commissioners that individual home value increases vary.

“Even though the digest has gone up, not everyone’s home value has gone up,” he said. “With a 10-percent increase in the digest, some homes went up more than that and some less than that, although I doubt many went down.”

There was no public comment at the hearing. During the board discussion, Preston asked Smith directly how he expected to fund everything in the budget while insisting on a total rollback, and the chairman replied, “Use the fund balance. That’s what it’s there for.”

“The decision to use rainy-day funds when we have a growing tax digest freaks me out a little bit,” said Preston.

Commissioner Blake Prince took Preston’s position.

“The only way not to raise taxes is to not raise the budget. At some point we’ve got to pay for it,” said Prince. “You cannot budget using savings. It would be similar to buying a home you can’t afford by using savings but only having enough for three years.”

Prince said he has constituents whose homeowners insurance has tripled in the past few years, and one man even came to him saying he wanted a tax refund because he’s paying for fire stations he doesn’t benefit from.

“Paying $15 more a year [for county millage] to lower property taxes $2,500 is a net win,” said Prince. “I made a decision when I won this election to leave this seat better than I found it. I can’t leave it with no fund balance just to save face. I won’t do it.”

After Smith called for a motion regarding one of the proposed resolutions (13.873 or 12.234), no one spoke for a moment and he asked for a motion to adjourn. Commissioner Bruce Holmes then moved to approve the 13.873 rollback, which was seconded by Preston leading up to the final vote.