Winters Defends Tax Hike PDF Print E-mail
News - Local News
Friday, 04 August 2017 08:52
Chattooga Commissioner Jason Winters is defending his need for the largest property tax increase in the county's history.
He will make that defense before the public during three upcoming meetings. The first two meetings are scheduled for 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday at the Chattooga Civic Center at 44 Highway 48 in Summerville.
The final meeting is 2 p.m. on Aug. 14.
"This is a very negative thing to go into. There will be a lot of negativity to a proposed tax increase," Winters said.
The county plans to take in about $1.4 million more in revenue by increasing the millage rate. Winters said he needs that money to pay the bills, especially with the higher cost to operate the jail and sheriff's department.
"Basically they get the credit card and I get the bill," Winters said. "I've asked [the sheriff] three or four times, what is it going to take for you to operate. The number he is working on is $3.7 million and that is more than it has been in the past."
Sheriff Mark Schrader's first year in office was in 2013 and he inherited a $1.3 million budget. Since then the sheriff's budget has increased 18 percent.
That's largely due to the cost of housing inmates in jails outside the county. A court order limits the number of inmates at the Chattooga Jail to 47. 
Back five years ago the sheriff was spending $450,000 on housing inmates. That number has ballooned to $852,000 in 2015.
These dramatic swings in spending are hard to budget, Winters said. With no relief in sight, the commissioner said part of the tax hike is for housing inmates.
"We've not seen that type of fluctuation in other departments," Winters said. "I know the sheriff is saying this is what it costs to operate. What I'm saying is if that is the cost to operate the jail, then we have to find these resources to fund the jail. We've got to see a tax increase."
The problem is people violating the terms of their probation, according to the sheriff. Judges will sentence a person to probation and months later the offenders are back in court for violating another law or the terms of their probation.
"You can try to budget, but you don't know how many people are going to be jailed and how long they are going to stay," Sheriff Schrader said. "Probation violations are the biggest problem."
Yesterday, the sheriff had 120 inmates. Out of those inmates, 76 were being housed for violating the probation or failing to appear in court.
Having 120 inmates also meant housing 27 in the Dade County Jail and 43 in the Floyd County Jail.
"I wished there was an easy out instead of spending money on housing inmates," the sheriff said. 
This was also an issue during last year's campaign for the sheriff and county commissioner. Winters does not want a new jail because he said taxes would be a lot higher than his proposed tax hike.
Jail and sheriff operations aren't the only cause of this year's proposed tax hike. The commissioner said he needs extra money for other areas as well.
The commissioner said the extra funds will go toward:
* $500,000-$750,000 for jail housing.
* $100,000 to start a county retirement fund.
* $150,000 more to fund employee health insurance.
* $300,000 for 9-1-1 technology upgrades.
* $200,000 more for roads, sanitation and public works.
Providing county workers and officials with health insurance is another rising cost, he said. Next year's premiums will jump about $150,000 he said.
The county has 117 people enrolled on its health insurance program. The county projects its insurance cost at $1,181,276.16 next year.
This does not include life insurance for employees. That's an additional $14,258.16 next year (up $1,730.16), the commissioner said.
"That is just due to a bad claims year. We had employees with illnesses and that is to be expected. We've been very lucky with our health insurance coverage in the past," Winters said.
"We don't have money for employee retirements. This is something that we don't have funds for except with a tax increase," Winters said.
The county stopped contributing three percent of each employee's pay into a retirement account. Winters stopped employee retirements after financial hardships at the county.
He wants to give employees a retirement this year, however.
The county is also expecting to upgrade its 9-1-1 Center to meet changing technological needs.
"When you make a 9-1-1 call at any time of the day or night, you expect someone to answer," Winters said.
The center's phone system needs updating to keep up with advances and equipment used by Verizon, AT&T and other companies.
"It's something that we've got to address," Winters said. 
But "to address" this problem, it will cost up to $300,000, he said.
The way people communicate has drastically changed for 9-1-1. A new study shows that only 39 percent of American households have a landline. The biggest challenge for 9-1-1 is keeping up with the cell phone technology. Now 93.5 percent of the population has a cell phone, according to a study by the National Health Interview Survey.
While the world's technology improves, this puts pressure on the 9-1-1 system to keep up with the times.
"Texting to 9-1-1. They are trying to make that the next thing. . . It's going to be mandatory that you have to have it," 9-1-1 Director Fran Hamilton and EMA Director Pam Vaughn said.
The state and federal government is moving to make texting a call to 9-1-1 the next generation of emergency services.
Texting comes in handy for someone who can't speak. For example, someone involved in domestic violence may not be able to speak to a 9-1-1 dispatcher. However, they could text a message for help to a 9-1-1 operator. The same concept applies to a stroke victim who might lose their ability to speak. Yet with one hand they could text 9-1-1.
"They told us we could band aid [our system]," Vaughn said.
However, that is tempting fate because the 9-1-1 system is already seeing some outages. Those outages mainly affect the non-emergency numbers but Vaughn and Hamilton fear problems could arise with emergency phone lines.
"The county depends on us. We've got to keep communication lines open," Vaughn said.
Although the commissioner wants to raise taxes by $1.4 million, it could be lower, he said.
"It's nothing that I'm looking forward to. But I want county residents to know I'm going to keep those numbers to a minimum."
The county is already seeing financial stress.  The county had to take out an additional loan to make ends meet. 
Out of the $4 million the county borrowed, about $900,000 is left. The commissioner is hoping to push forward and make it until property tax bills go out. If all goes well, those bills should come out in October, officials said.
The county plans to increase the millage rate 3.87 mills on the unincorporated areas of the county. It will push that millage rate to 15.609 mills. 
A 4.099 mill rate increase is expected on the incorporated areas. That pushes the rate on that segment of the county to 19.138.
What this means for land and homeowners is paying more. 
Here are some examples, according to county records, of how much more:
* A property valued at $75,000 (and without a homestead exemption), could see their tax bill increase $114 to $120.
* A home valued at $50,000 (and without a homestead exemption), could see a tax hike of $76 to $80.
The county expects to get $1.4 million more in taxes, if the commissioner approves this hike.
By comparison, the county's millage rate is the highest in the region. But that does not mean local residents pay more. One mill of taxes in Chattooga does not equal one mill of taxes in Walker, Dade or Catoosa. 
For example, one mill in Walker County brings in approximately $1,040,000. A mill in Chattooga, however, generates about $342,000. 
However, for comparison, the millage rate is 10.94 in Walker County and 9.561 in Whitfield. Dade is proposing a 10.825 millage rate and Chattooga is 19.138.

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