The Town of Register is at a fork in the road where city officials must decide whether to institute a property tax or dissolve the town and fold into the county.
Mayor Barbara Rushing says the town has been struggling to make ends meet for several years, but increasing costs and decreased revenue have only exacerbated the situation.
Rushing said for the last several months, she and the Council have referred to the city financial situation as ‘dire’ and ‘urgent,’ but there has been little to no community participation at monthly meetings and she worries that residents are unaware that the town is within months of not being able to pay necessary obligations. She said conversations with the city attorney, Cain Smith, and the accountant, Richard Deal, have left everyone pondering how the city is going to continue on in existence.
The town’s reliable revenue – or money on which the council can plan to collect in order to set the budget – includes revenue from water bills, three business licenses ($75/each annually), one alcohol license (a little over $1,000 annually), and franchise fees. Franchise fees are paid out by utility companies on an annual or quarterly basis and can fluctuate based on usage and contract terms.
For some time, Register was also collecting ad valorem taxes paid out through the county, in what now appears to be an oversight by the county tax office, but because the town does not impose property taxes, it is not entitled to those funds from ad valorem, which means Register is out additional revenue it previously relied on.
Rushing said that employee pay has been unstable dating back as far as former mayor James Oates tenure, and despite all of the current employees working part-time, human capital is necessary to operate a town. The city clerk currently works a maximum of 24 hours of week and neither the mayor nor the council members take a salary for their service.
But despite cuts in services and overall expenditures, general operating costs have increased – phone bills, power bills, and propane costs – while revenue has not.
Much of the spending, Rushing said, has been on town improvements which were funded by SPLOST dollars collected on sales tax. Operating expenses are the only other general fund expenditures and the police department has been self-sustaining. The PD has also been contributing toward one-third of the general expenditures for the town, including utilities and insurance, in addition to their own expenditures like fuel, phone bills to Verizon for their vehicle systems, and salaries.
One of the greatest routine expenses is the water system, which is leading the town to address repairs on a weekly basis. Water rates are well below the regional standard and the loss of two pumps triggered insurance assistance earlier this year, but when Register was responsible for $2,000 in deductibles, reserve funds were only further depleted. The town has, however, applied for a Community Development Block Grant to overhaul the water system, which would upgrade the well, lay new PVC pipe to replace galvanized pipe, and new water meters – all of which would assist in lowering maintenance costs in the long run.
Rushing says the close by towns of Pulaski and Bellville, neither of which have property taxes, are not good comparisons to Register because Pulaski has a nursing home and Bellville has Pinewood Christian Academy private school in the city limits. Both have water revenue that is double that of Register and receive LOST funds from their county for sales tax whereas in Bulloch, all LOST funds go to the school system.
The city charter already has a provision which allows the council and mayor to institute the tax without a vote by the public, but Rushing said the council wants to hear from the citizens and is hoping they will come to the January meeting. The proposed property tax would be set at 7 mills, meaning a property valued at $100,000 would yield an estimated $280 in taxes a year.
The only other option, town officials say, would be to sell off the city’s assets, dissolve the town and its charter, and fold into the county – something those leading the town don’t want to do.
The first public meeting is scheduled for Thursday, January 9th at 5:30 P.M. The public will be able to ask questions and see financial documents, which are available at city hall. Council meetings are every month on the second Thursday and they are all open to the public.