Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oconee County Meeting to Focus on Finances

It's the Numbers

Financial reports, which should give some indication of the impact of the national financial crisis on the county, dominate the agenda for the Tuesday meeting of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.

Melissa Peters from accounting firm Treadwell, Tamplin and Company is scheduled to discuss the Fiscal Year 2008 Audit Report with the Board.

County Finance Director Jeff Benko is to present the county Fiscal Year 2009 six-month financial report and the Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Submittal Plan.

County Chief Tax Appraiser Allen Skinner is scheduled to give the Board an update on his work.

In addition, the Board is scheduled to receive the final report of an ad hoc committee studying the Transfer of Development Rights and to discuss the possibility of equestrian trails at Heritage Park on U.S. 441 in the south of the county.

County Clerk Gina Lindsey released the agenda for the meeting–officially the Board’s agenda setting session--on Friday.

Finance Director Benko told me on Friday he expects to have the state figures for sales tax collection in Oconee County from December before the meeting.

The figures for the last year have not been good. Revenues for four of the last six months and seven of the last 12 months have been down.

Even the first half of fiscal year 2008 (July through December of 2007) was not good, with four of those months producing tax revenue lower than the same month a year earlier.

For fiscal year 2008, Oconee County collected $49,178 less from the Local Option Sales Tax and $69,995 less in the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Both are for one cent on the dollar of spending, but LOST has more exemptions than SPLOST.

The pattern of growth year-to-year had been steady for both taxes back to 1999, so the downturn in fiscal year 2008, if not reversed, could produce real problems for the county.

Voters in March of this year will be asked to approve a new SPLOST of one cent on the dollar, and the county has projected that, across six years, the tax will generate $40 million in revenue, or an average of $6.7 million per year, or nearly $1.2 million more than the tax produced in fiscal year 2008.

The county recently has approved two new, large, commercial projects, one on Epps Bridge Parkway and the other on U.S. 78, but neither is under construction, and both are years away from build-out.

The county will have to cover lost revenue for SPLOST and LOST with property taxes, or it will have to cut back on services and capital expenditures.

The county already is struggling with the possible loss of state funding for homestead exemption grants. Gov. Sonny Perdue cut $428 million for the current fiscal year from the state budget and the same amount from fiscal year 2010. Unless the legislature reversed the governor and funds these grants, Oconee County and other counties around the state will have to figure out how to make up the differences.

The problem is particularly difficult for this current fiscal year, since Oconee Countyhomeowners already have received their property tax bills and the county has based its budget on what property owners will pay plus the state contribution.

The state exempts from state, county and school taxes $2,000 of the 40 percent assessed value of residences as a way of reducing the property tax burden for homeowners.

Homeowners can expect to get bills for between $200 and $300 if the county does not get the state reimbursement for this exemption and cannot cut its current budget accordingly.

It is a relatively small amount, but the county also learned this week that it is going to have to spend an additional $30,000 as its part of the boat dock for Bear Creek Reservoir. The full county expenditure is expected to be about $60,000, Jeff Benko told me on Friday, and the county had been expecting the state to pick up about half that amount.

These circumstances make voter approval of the SPLOST tax at the March 17 election all the more important.

Voters in the county have a good record of approving this tax. In 1999, 75 percent of the voters who turned out approved the tax, and 82 percent approved the current SPLOST in 2003. In 2006, 79 percent of Oconee voters who went to the polls approved a five-year tax of one cent on the dollar for educational purposes.

All of these were approved in special elections, when relatively few voters go to the polls. Only 1,696 people voted on the current SPLOST when it was approved in 2003.

Currently there are 21,579 registered voters in Oconee County, and at the general election in November 17,208 voted.

Its no accident that these issues are put on the ballot when few people go to the polls.

Political scientist Changhoon Jung studied SPLOST votes in Georgia that took place from 1985 to 1997 and found that the lower the voter turnout rate, the higher the likelihood that a SPLOST referendum will pass.

Jung, formerly at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, is now at Auburn University.

The financial crisis, of course, makes it difficult to offer predictions based on what Oconee County voters or voters around the state did in different circumstances.

Melvin Davis, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, reassured citizens in his column in The Oconee Enterprise of Jan. 8, 2009, that "Oconee County is in excellent financial shape at this point in time."

He said that he believed the county will "weather our current economic situation" but that the county "must continue to carefully analyze current data."

Tuesday night’s agenda should offer the rest of the commissioners and citizens a chance to review some of those current data.

Davis, left, County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault at BOC SPLOST meeting of Nov. 20, 2008.