Residents, the majority aligned with the Canton Tea Party Patriots, denounced the county’s proposal to raise the rate, which officials argue is needed due to the decline in the county’s property tax digest.
The county’s total millage rate sits at 9.13 mills, which includes 5.36 for the general fund, 3.129 for the fire district and .641 for the parks bond.
A revenue neutral increase would result in a mileage rate of 5.82 for the general fund, 3.39 for the fire fund and .693 for the parks bond.
The rate is considered revenue neutral because most taxpayers saw their property values decrease by the same percentage as the rate would increase.
The increase would cover an estimated 7.3 percent, or $2.8 million, decline in the property tax digest for its general fund, said Cherokee County Chief Financial Officer Janelle Funk, adding the digest has declined the past four consecutive years.
A home valued at about $165,000 with the standard $5,000 exemption would pay about $590 in county property taxes.
Many residents are expected to see their property tax bills decline as their home values also dropped.
The commission is set to hold its final public hearing at 6 p.m. July 24, and is expected to set the rates after the hearing.
The commission will hold a called meeting at 6 p.m. July 26 to formally adopt the millage rate for the Cherokee County Board of Education.
The school board is expected to leave its millage rate of 19.85 mills in place for its fiscal year, which began July 1.
Along with the digest decline, Funk said the county is also facing a $5.9 million shortfall, which she said could be plugged if the county utilized offsets that could fill the gap.
“Using offsets aren’t perfect … but it does allow (for) the county to avoid a tax increase,” she added.
The county’s fiscal year will begin on Oct. 1, and the county currently has been operating on a nine-month budget.
Before opening up the public hearing, County Commissioner Harry Johnston asked residents to provide feedback on areas in which the commission could consider cutting.
None of the residents who spoke offered any concrete suggestions, but a few asked for the entire commission to resign and to make cuts in its administration.
Many residents also stuck by their assertions that the board was raising the millage rate in a time of economic hardship, and that the increase would be detrimental to county taxpayers.
Some residents veered off topic and used the public hearing to criticize the commission’s handling of Ball Ground Recycling and its May 2012 Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.
Carolyn Cosby of Ball Ground accused the commission of raising taxes to pay off Ball Ground Recycling owner Jimmy Bobo’s property taxes. She also accused the county of ducking the responsibility of assessing and collecting Bobo’s taxes.
Johnston refuted Cosby’s claims, noting that responsibility lies with the Cherokee County tax assessor and the Cherokee County Tax Commissioner’s offices, both of which he said are independent from the commission.
Johnston added that while the county commission appoints residents to the Cherokee County Board of Assessors, the board in turn hires the chief tax appraiser.
She also said she and her Review and Recommendations Committee to Assist County Government warned the commission it would be in its current position if it continued to spend money.
Johnston on Wednesday noted the commission already knew it would be faced with a budgetary shortfall.
“We’re not looking to increase tax revenues; we’re just not in a position to cut them,” he said. “We were very clear during last year’s rate-setting and budgeting process that the use of one-time credits to balance that budget would leave us with another very difficult budget this year.”
Woodstock resident John Hiland said the proposal to raise the rate flies in the face of Republican Party beliefs.
“We keep getting higher taxes and more government,” he added.
Woodstock resident Debbie Staver said county residents can’t afford the government’s spending habits and a good place to start would be to cut the county commissoners’ salaries.
During the presentation she made during the work session and the public hearing, Funk noted the county allocates 70 percent of the county’s general fund budget to public safety and the court system.
Sixty-one percent of the general fund’s major cost categories are personnel related, she added.
Any more cuts to the county’s budget she added, would inevitably impact those areas.
Funk also noted county employees had not seen any cost-of-living increases since 2007 and cutting $2.8 million from the budget would impact about 55 employees.
However, resident Joe Robert disagreed, adding that statements relating to any more cuts affecting public safety are “just a fear tactic” the county is using.
County Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens said he thought Funk did an “excellent job” in presenting the commission and the residents with the challenges the county government faces.
While Ahrens did say some of the concerns residents expressed were legitimate, he noted the discussion should have stayed on topic for the sake of other residents.
“We want people to come out and speak, but we want people to stay on topic,” he added.
Commissioner Jim Hubbard said the county last year asked the Review and Recommendations Committee to Assist County Government, headed by Cosby, to come up with a list of ways to help the county cut costs.
Hubbard said the committee and its members have only targeted the county’s park bonds and capital improvement programs, none of which are funded with general fund dollars.
Commissioner Jason Nelms added he’s gone through the county’s budget and noted there was no other place the county could cut without impacting essential services.
“I don’t think there’s anything in this budget that we can cut that would not impact public services,” he said.
Johnston said it’s the commission’s responsibility to provide residents “the balance most citizens want between low taxes and good services” and added he believes the county already does so.
“Our job is also to deliver those service efficiently,” he said. “And based on our very low tax rates and above-average services, we’re doing a pretty good job of that.”