With no regularly scheduled County Commissioner meetings and no publicly released 2017 budget, the news of a proposed 33 percent property tax increase hit the public like a punch in the gut.
The first of three scheduled meetings to explain the tax increase did little to lessen the impact. Sole Commissioner Winters displayed his political prowess by skillfully controlling the meeting complete with a handout featuring last year’s budget numbers, as well as several previous year’s statistics, and laying out the fact that our county is heavily dependent upon property tax. The initial 45 minutes of the meeting were focused on Commissioner Winters reading off the 13 pages of numbers before opening up the floor to “public statements”, no questions were allowed.
Kicking off the comment section of the meeting was Chattooga resident, Mr. Jackson, who stated simply that he “has known Jason nearly all his life and…if Jason says he needs this money, then Jason needs this money!”
While that rationale may work for Mr. Jackson, several other residents disagreed. Mr. Allan Baggett took the podium next and asked a few questions of the Commissioner only to have the point clarified that there would not be any type of discussion. Residents were free to make comments but no questions would be publicly answered by Mr. Winters. Baggett mentioned several aspects of the County operation that could use some attention including forcing businesses to pay taxes.
Baggett also addressed the “four layers of economic development” for Chattooga County which taxpayers foot the bill for, starting with Senator Jeff Mullis who, Baggett claimed, “double-dipped” because economic development should be part of his job as our state senator. Baggett cited the Chamber of Commerce, the commissioner himself and “Mr. Cavin (economic developer) the position you created under you,” as the next three layers of economic development and then suggested that these four positions should be based on commission rather than salary. According to Baggett, the compensation for these positions would not be paid out unless revenue generating businesses were brought in.
Local businessman Jeff Coley spoke very openly about his opposition to the tax hike. “We are overtaxed as it is… you’re the first commissioner in modern history to inherit a surplus.” Coley went on to describe this situation as a “gold mine” and voiced his belief that the local government should be held to their budget in the same manner as private households. “I have a small business. I’m a chicken farmer.” said Coley. He reminded the commissioner that Chattooga County is one of the poorest counties in the entire state and that the citizens can’t just ask for more money when their budget is exceeded. Coley pointed out that, with this tax hike, Chattooga will have the highest tax rate in the region with no relief in sight.
Mr. Meadows spoke saying, “I am for the tax increase.” The two residents who spoke in favor of the tax increase placed blame squarely with the tax accessors office, despite the fact that the County Tax Accessors Office answers to the Commissioner himself.
Mr. Elrod took the podium to highlight that increases in health care costs to county employees were not met with increases in their own cost. Elrod felt that taxpayers were covering those increases while struggling to maintain their own health care cost increases.
This was the first of three planned meetings. The next meeting will be held this evening at 6pm.