The Upson County Board of Commissioners came under fire from many citizens at last week’s board meeting prior to voting to increase taxes to a total of 18.76 mills, which includes county wide (11.13 mills), joint project (4.91 mills) and unincorporated (2.72 mills) tax millage. During public comment, several concerned citizens stated the community could not withstand a tax increase again this year, noting in particular it could cause even more homes to be foreclosed upon because people simply cannot afford to pay what they have to now. Chairman Rusty Blackston sympathized with the crowd, stating he did not want to raise taxes either, however an increase is necessary due to a continually shrinking tax digest. The board voted 4-1 in favor of the millage rate increase, with Commissioner Frank Spraggins voting no.
Joel Edmondson was first to speak to the commissioners last Wednesday, stating the tax increase would be particularly hard on the senior citizens on a fixed income.
“I understand the county is in difficult straits, all of us are, but there are times when we have to make our eyes a little bit smaller and look at things a little bit differently,” said Edmondson. “For those of us that are old and on a fixed income, we simply can’t stand the strain. We’ve been told too many times, you need to tighten your belt a little bit. It’s time that you folks (the commissioners) had to tighten your belt a little bit and look perhaps at a nearer horizon instead of a far one. We can’t continue to outspend the income.”
Many agreed with Edmondson, stating citizens are being taxed to death and asking if the board has exhausted all other possibilities that could help the situation rather than raising the millage rate. Attracting more industry to the area was offered as a suggestion as a way to raise the tax digest and bring more jobs into the community, but many feel a higher tax rate will only hurt Upson County’s chances.
David Harris noted the lack of industry in the area has been a problem for quite some time and he for one is tired of it.
“There is one family that kept industry out of this town for over 50 years and everybody knows who it is. That is why we are stuck in this problem now. Y’all are no better than that family was because you yourselves are keeping it (industry) out by raising taxes,” Harris stated. “If I had a business I wouldn’t bring it here, even if I was a multi-billionaire because y’all are going to take the majority of it and the people that work for it can’t buy the products no way. I’m just fed up with it.”
Scott Blackstock spoke to the board as both a tax payer and a member of the Industrial Development Authority, noting something has to be done to figure out a way to keep taxes under control. He stated that another increase is hard on a personal level, but it also makes it harder to recruit industries because taxes are one of the first things prospects look at when researching a community. While it is ideal to bring a new industry into the area, he feels until that happens there are only two other options: to cut services or raise taxes on those who remain; neither of which he feels like are good choices. However, he sympathized with the board, telling the crowd it is “no fun to be in charge of a shrinking pie.”
After hearing from several other citizens, Chairman Blackston spoke to the crowd stating there was not a person on the board that wanted to see a tax increase and that he hated paying taxes as much as the next person. He noted the only way the county can collect revenue is through taxes, unlike the city, who has revenue generating entities such as utilities as a way to bring in funding. Blackston stated many things have contributed to the need for a tax increase this year such as property evaluations going down. Foreclosure sales have also gone up, which means even if there is a $300,000 house on the books last year and it sells for $100,000 this year then all it can be taxed is for a $100,000 home, which takes away two-thirds of the taxes on that house. He continued stating in the past five years the amount one mill brings in has gone down $60,000, the tax digest has gone down $15 million in the last year alone and that in the past there has been some overspending that is beginning to catch up with the county.
Blackston stated the county has had to deal with many unfunded state mandates over the years, meaning there are services that were once provided by the state that the county has to cover. Mental health and health care for the prisoners are just two of many. He also noted that a large portion of the county’s budget comes from the constitutional officers budget, which includes the courts, Sheriff, Clerk of Superior courts and the Tax Commissioner and the county commissioners have no control over those, they merely work with them. In a handout provided at the meeting, it shows the budgets for the Sheriff’s Department and the Upson County Jail total $4,301,229 or 36.37 percent of the budget, while the total for the courts Superior ($770,533), Clerk of Superior Court ($443,037), Tax Commissioner ($370,000), Magistrate ($273,719), Probate ($195,968) and Juvenile (154,348) equals $6,509,037 or 55 percent of the budget. Blackston added that most work with the board very well, noting Tax Commissioner Berry Cook brings in much more money through delinquent taxes than he requests in his budget, but that the board will be making a plea with the constitutional officers as well as every other department to reduce as much as possible for the upcoming 2015 budgets.
“We are going to look at this year and estimate what our revenues will be coming in more closely and we will be tightening this budget up,” said Blackston of what the commissioners plan to do to try to avoid another tax hike next year. “Basically, by the end of this year we should know what the millage rate will be for the next year. We will be asking all of our department heads to work with us and to cut back… We are going to do what we have to do.”
Ashley Biles can be reached by calling 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @AshleyBiles1