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Tax assessor misses deadline, delivers digest late

Having missed a deadline Monday to produce the 2009 county tax digest, Tax Assessor Susan Bennett delivered the final figures to county officials just moments before meetings of the county commission and board of education were scheduled to begin.
The county commission approximately two months ago put in writing its desire for the tax digest to be completed by Monday, September 21. The county commission also scheduled a called meeting for that day at 5:30 p.m., but the digest was not complete.
“She had some software problems,” County Administrator Rusty Moye said.
According to Moye, those problems caused a delay and Bennett did not present the final numbers until just before 5 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, which was just thirty minutes prior to a rescheduled commission meeting and an hour and a half before a called meeting of the Grady County Board of Education.
Once the digest was presented, county commissioners liked what they saw. Officials were not sure what to expect since the state has issued a moratorium on increased assessments on real property.
Because of the moratorium and other necessary adjustments to local real property values $1,658,778 in value was taken off the digest.
However, that decrease was offset by $7,716,888 in growth of real property compared to last year as well as a huge $24,626,583 increase in personal property.
The value of motor vehicles in the county showed a sharp decline of $2,094,290. Value of mobile homes in the county also dropped by $627,680.
According to Ms. Bennett, the total net digest grew by $21,318,417 for a total of $619,265,289.
Due to the growth in the digest and the negative reassessment of existing real property, both the Grady County commission and school board can maintain the current ad valorem tax millage rate and not technically have a tax increase. Thus, three public hearings on the tax levy that have been held for the last several years can be avoided.
Coming into Tuesday evening’s meeting, the county commission had cut its proposed operating budget last Thursday during a work session from $11,215,950 down to $10,930,599, which it appeared would have required a transfer of  $372,587 out of cash reserves in order to fund the proposed budget.
However, with the growth in the digest a millage rate left at the current rate of 10.50 mills would fund all of the budget but $1,175 which would come from reserves.
Commissioner Al Ball encouraged the board to consider lowering the millage rate. At 10.50 mills the county will collect $206,426 more in local taxes than it did last year. Over the course of the last five years tax collections have increased over $2 million.
“I sure would like to see the millage rate drop. The reason being, we’ve money in excess of the recommended cash reserve that we could pull from to balance the budget. Since I’ve been on the board, and that is only six years, we’ve never had the opportunity to lower the tax rate. The taxpayers are already being hit by a tax increase due to the homestead tax relief elimination. We might have to raise it next year, but this year we could give them a break,” Commissioner Ball said.
Commissioner Charles Norton said he sympathized with the tax payers, but noted up until 1999 the board had had to borrow money each year in anticipation of tax collections because the county did not have sufficient cash reserves.
“I understand what you are saying Mr. Ball. The economy is bad on everyone, but we don’t know if these revenue projections will hold up. The money may not come in and we may still have to dip into reserves just to get through this year,” Norton warned.
“That’s what reserves are for,” Ball replied.
Chairman Bobby Burns sided with Norton and stated, “I would rather see it stay where we’re at and possibly not have to raise or at least not as much next year. I’m worried more about next year.”
Commissioner Norton also noted that if the board tentatively adopted a rate of 10.5 mills commissioners could still lower the tax rate at final adoption, the rate just could not be increased higher than the tentative rate advertised.
Commissioner Ball told his fellow board members he preferred a unanimous board on decisions such as the budget and taxes and he would support the tentative rate of 10.5 mills if the board would consider a lower rate and the budget implications over the course e of the next two weeks.
Another concern for commissioners is the ever increasing amount of taxable property on the books that is exempted from taxes. Total exemptions grew by $13,808,759 for a total of $178,047,789.
A new timber exemption approved by the voters of Georgia last year also resulted in changes to the millage rate considerations. The county is due a $5,378,658 reimbursement from the state for the tax loss associated with the additional timber exemptions.
County Administrator Moye expressed his concern whether or not the money was available to the state to reimburse the county and if so when would the money be disbursed.
“I’ve got some questions about that too,” Commissioner Norton said.
The board of commissioners were able to cut its proposed operating budget during a work session last Thursday by approving a number of cuts.
Included in those cuts were the reduction of one position per shift at Grady Emergency Medical Service; buying only one new sheriff’s patrol vehicle and budgeting funding to rebuild two older units; eliminating county supplements for retired judges Willard H. Chason and J.R. Porter Jr.; $200,000 cut in health & medical insurance costs due to a lower than anticipated rate increase; reduction in Roddenbery Memorial Library funding down to $110,000; cutting out all funding for the Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy; and other various revisions.
Still to be decided is whether or not the board wishes to use cash reserves to retire its share of debt on the expansion of Milestone Industrial Park. Included in the proposed operating budget is the debt service payments for 2010, but County Administrator Moye has recommended the board use $837,624 from reserves to pay off the remaining debt.
Final adoption of the budget and the ad valorem tax rate will take place during a special called meeting scheduled for Thursday morning, October 8 beginning at 8:30 a.m. in the commission chambers. The meeting is open to the public.

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