The county’s millage rate for 2015 will remain the same as last year, as the Upson County Commissioners tentatively set the rate for 18.76 mills at a called meeting held last Thursday. Commission Chairman Rusty Blackston stated the total rate is broken down into three parts with general taxation will be 9.76 mills; unincorporated will be 2.72 mills and joint projects will be 6.28 mills. Since there was no increase in the rate, by law, the county does not have to hold any public hearings on the matter. The board is expected to officially set the rate around September 10.
Although just because the millage rate is staying the same that does not necessarily mean that citizen’s property taxes will not go up. County Manager Jim Wheeless stated that amount will be determined by the reevaluation of each piece of property; explaining if someone’s property was reevaluated higher than the last time, then their tax bill will be higher.
Chairman Blackston also noted there have been questions from citizens as to what the county insurance premium tax goes towards and he stated it is for the unincorporated areas of the county.
“Our insurance premium tax has been used specifically for services in the unincorporated areas of Upson County,” said Blackston. “Without it, our taxes would have probably been another 2.41 mills higher.”
However, it has not been an easy task to keep the millage rate from receiving an increase due to the continually shrinking tax digest. County Manager Jim Wheeless stated overall the general tax digest has dropped 5.10 percent from 2014-2015 which equals out to $30,424,785 less than last year. Also, the unincorporated tax is down 7.61 percent ($29,372,703) and the joint project tax is down 5.09 percent ($30,564,785). In 2014 one mill of tax was bringing in $595,984 and now in 2015, it will only bring in $565,559.
“So we continue to have an eroding tax digest,” said Wheeless. “Somewhere we’ve got to have something to get it going again. The positive things, between the efforts of the board, the department heads and the administrative staff, all have worked very hard to not have a tax millage increase and that is the most important thing to me. To go through what we are going through and to maintain the 18.76 millage rate, y’all are to be commended.”
Commissioner Lorenzo Wilder stated there seemed to be a big difference in the tax digest from not only last year to this year, but also the last few years prior. He posed the question of what can be done to stop this downward trend, noting he knew bringing new businesses into the area is the key to turning things around. Wheeless agreed that he believes jobs are the answer because they will help with other areas such as poverty and crime rate. Yet what he believes is the most important factor is education because industries need a skilled workforce and that is one of the main things they look for when visiting communities.
“When you talk about the workforce, skills training is needed,” said Wheeless. “The last numbers I heard was it is around 29 to 30 percent of our population does not have a high school diploma or GED and that affects what attracts industry. Training and having a trained workforce ready to go is key.”
If any industry comes knocking on the door, there is around $500,000 set aside in the account for the Industrial Development Authority to use for incentives. The money comes from the dedicated mill for the IDA that was put in place in 2013. However, since then, the board has voted not to keep the dedicated mill in the millage rate due to the fact they feel it would unfairly raise taxes on the property owners.
“Does that incentive money need to go up? Yes,” stated Wheeless, “but if we put a mill of tax on the back of the tax payers with everything going on now…We are back to crawling again before we can walk and then run. We have got to get the reserve back up and the budget back to a livable amount first.”
One question many have asked recently when it comes to discussing the county’s finances is what will be done with the $300,000 the county is saving by not having to pay for EMS service, how will the money be spent? Wheeless stated that money is not going to be spent at all, it will merely lower the county’s expenses by $300,000 each year for the remaining three years of the contract the county has with Mid Georgia Ambulance. Therefore, when the budgets for next year are completed, that amount will just not be factored into the overall budget.
“Next year that money will not be budgeted and will help in getting the (overall) amount down,” began Wheeless. “Next year the EMS won’t be in the budget, period…It drops our expenses by $300,000. It’s not like we had a pot of money where we are going to put the $300,000. That budget expense just goes away.”
Ashley Biles can be reached by calling 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @AshleyBiles1