Sunday, June 06, 2021

Oconee County Commissioners Pass Fiscal Year 2022 Budget But Property Tax Rate Not Yet Set

***Expect Millage Rate Reduction***

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday adopted a $58.5 million Fiscal Year 2022 budget that anticipates a reduction in the county’s property tax rate.

The size of the reduction has not yet been specified, however, and it isn’t likely to be enough to offset inflationary growth in the tax digest.

The Board has scheduled three hearings on the new millage rate for July and August leading up to adoption of the rate on Aug. 3.

The Oconee County Board of Education, at its meeting early last month, adopted a Fiscal Year 2022 budget that is based on a continuation of its current millage rate of 16.5.

Wilhelm Waters appeared before the Commission on Tuesday night to complain about the taxes he pays for Oconee County Schools, though the tax rate for Oconee County Schools is entirely under the control of the Board of Education, not the Board of Commissioners.

The millage rate for the unincorporated part of Oconee County that the Board of Commissioners is considering reducing is 6.686 for the current fiscal year.

The Board of Commissioners on Tuesday also turned down a request by a property owner to use refurbished shipping containers for a food and retail court on Hog Mountain Road and to reduce the buffer between that property and the residential property behind it.

Public Hearing

Tuesday was the second hearing on the proposed Fiscal Year 2020 Budget, but Waters made his comments at the beginning of the meeting set aside for citizen comment rather than when the budget was being discussion by the Commission.

Waters Before Commission 6/1/2021

At the first public hearing before the Board of Commissioners meeting on May 25, two citizens spoke, both complimenting the Commission on the budget.

Mark Campbell, chair of the Oconee County Library Board of Trustees, thanked the county for its support of the county’s two libraries.

Dan Magee, Loch Lomond Circle, praised the Board for providing matching funds for expansion of the Senior Center and for not charging Oconee County Schools for using county sports facilities even after the school system began charging the county Parks and Recreation Department for use of it school sports facilities.

At the Tuesday meeting, Waters complained about the increase in taxes resulting from the increased assessment of property and said he recognized that most of those taxes were going to the schools.

Question On School Tax Burden

“I looked at the numbers,” Waters said of the recently mailed statement from the Tax Commissioner on property assessments.

“I'm single, never had kids, never will have kids, and yet 80 percent of my taxes go to schools,” said Waters, who said he was born and grew up in the county. (The actual figure is 71.2 percent.)

“And I see transplants coming in here left and right with their big vehicles,” he said. “They think they're so special coming here getting this free education, which people like me have been paying for 51 years.

“Well granted, I did go to school here,” he said, “but I think I’ve paid that back.

“There has to be something that can be done to give us a break who've been here, who never asked anybody to come here when it was a great county, not what it is now with every tree being torn down just to build a new house.

“So what are my taxes doing for me, not for everybody else, but for me?” Waters asked.

Commission Chuck Horton, who chaired the Tuesday meeting in the absence of Board Chair John Daniell, said “as far as taxes that we levy, we do everything that we possibly can to be tight with the money.”

“We can't speak for the Oconee County Schools,” he said.

County Millage Rate

At the end of the budget hearing on May 25, Daniell said the budget as proposed is based on projected growth in the tax digest of 4.2 percent but the actual growth rate is likely to be higher.

“So that additional percentage will be available for rollback,” Daniell said.

Daniell said the county is awaiting the final figures from Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle before setting that rate.

“In rough numbers, we need a 4.2 percent increase in property tax to fund the budget,” Daniell said in an email message to me on May 27.

Early projections show digest growth slightly over 7 percent, he said.

But only a part of that growth is due to inflation, with the remainder reflecting real growth in the tax base resulting from new construction or expansion.

Historically, the inflationary growth is around 60 percent of the total growth in the tax digest, Daniell said. So 40 percent of a 7 percent growth would be 2.8 percent.

Under that circumstance, the 4.2 percent growth used in the budget will require a hearing.

Required Public Hearing

If the budget is based on growth in the tax rate attributed to inflation, state law requires the county to roll back the tax rate to keep revenue flat or to hold a public hearing on what is a tax increase.

Millage rates are due to the Georgia Department of Revenue by Sept. 1, Daniell said at the May 25 budget hearing.

Anticipating that any rollback in the millage rate will not be sufficient to result in a flat tax, the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday set public hearings on the new millage rate for 6 p.m. on July 6 and July 27 and for 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 3.

The Board will then adopt the millage rate on Aug. 3.

The School Board, in adopting its budget based the millage rate at 16.5, anticipated an increase in revenue because of the growth in the assessed value of property in the county. The current rate is 16.5.

The School Board decided to allocate the increased revenue to a $1,250 bonus for all employees plus a $1 increase in the hourly salary of bus drivers, custodial works, and school nutrition workers.

The Board of Education also will have to hold hearings on the resulting tax increase, though those dates have not yet been announced.

Features Of County Budget

The county budget approved on Tuesday has five components, General Fund, Special Funds, Capital Project Funds, Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax Funds, and Enterprise Funds.

Revenues for the General Fund are $32.7 million in the approved Fiscal Year 2022 Budget, up from $31.3 million in the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

More than half of that General Fund revenues (55 percent) comes from property tax, with the 1 percent Local Option Sales Tax providing the next largest amount (22 percent).

The $11in Special Purpose Local Option Tax revenue comes from the 1 percent sales tax.

The $12 million in revenue in the Enterprise Funds comes largely from the Water Resources Department, which provides water and sewer services to the county.

The Sheriff’s Office, which includes the jail and E911, accounts for the largest component of spending (27 percent) from the General Fund, followed by Public Works at 16 percent.

The budget approved by the Commission on Tuesday does not use county reserves, called the Fund Balance, and includes a net reduction in full-time employees, County Finance Director Wes Geddings told the Board.

Fee Schedule

The budget in based on a fee schedule that increases the base residential water rate from 15.48 for the first 1,000 gallons to $15.63.

Commercial water rates also will increase, with the base rate just less than a percent higher than at present.

The base residential sewer charge will increase from $16.10 to $16.82, and the rate per 1,000 gallons will go from $5.79 to $6.05.

Commercial rates also will increase 4.5 percent.

The proposed fee schedule increases the costs of a number of sports programs to accommodate the school use fee being imposed by Oconee County Schools.

The proposed 2022 fee schedule adds a $30 per person fee for youth basketball and tackle football and for high school intramural basketball.

The schedule adds a $5 fee per person for cheerleading and soccer that uses school facilities.

The proposal adds $30 fee per team for adult basketball.

Zoning For Outdoor Food, Retail Court

Andy Barrs asked the Board of Commissioners to grant him a special use permit to be allowed to use converted shipping containers as food and retail stalls at a community play area he is proposing to build at 1973 Hog Mountain Road.

Pittman Before Commission 6/1/2021

He also asked the Board to grant him a special exception variance waiving the requirement for a 50-foot incompatible land use buffer between his property and residential property abutting the site. That land is being developed as the Village at Stonebridge.

The concept plan Barrs submitted shows five modular buildings that would range from 200 square feet to 1,200 square feet. It also shows a pavilion that would be 800 square feet in size.

Frank Pittman, of Pittman Engineering, representing Barrs, told the Board that one of the buildings would be what he called a Chick Fil-A “distribution hub,” with food brought in from an existing restaurant on Atlanta Highway.

In the concept plan, the Chick-Fil-A is located in a building serviced by a drive-through.

Pittman said that a Chick-Fil-A food truck has been operating on the site with success.

Original And Future Plans

Pittman told the commissioners that Barrs had plans “a couple of years ago” to build “a big office building on this property” that he now plans to use for the out door food and retail court.

“Construction costs were up a little bit,” Pittman said, “and he backed off of that” and is planning the food and retail court with play area instead.

Pittman said an advantage of the modular units is that “these things can be picked up and taken off site without having to actually demolish something.”

“I think there will be a time down the road, whether that's 10 years, 15 years, whenever that is, when this property gets developed again because” the current plan “isn't a huge development,” Pittman said.

“At that time is really when that variance is going to be a bigger issue,” Pittman said of the request that Barrs not be required to build a buffer with the residential property.

Commission Action

Only one person, Carole Bridges, who lives across from the Barrs properties on Hog Mountain Road, spoke in opposition to the two requests by Barrs.

Bridges said the project would create more traffic. She also said parking was insufficient.

Bridges also had spoken at the Planning Commissioner meeting on May 17. That advisory group only considered the request for the modular units, and it voted in favor of the request 7 to 2.

Horton chaired the Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday in place of vacationing Chair Daniell.

Commissioner Mark Saxon made the motion to deny the special use permit for the modular units, and Commissioner Mark Thomas seconded.

The motion passed with Commissioner Amrey Harding voting in the negative.

Saxon also made the motion to deny the special exception variance for the buffer requirement, and that motion was seconded by Harden.

The motion passed with Thomas voting in the negative.

Other Zoning

In other action on Tuesday, the Board of Commissioners approved a special use permit requested by John and Brittany Wardlow to operate a septic tank cleaning service on 5.5 acres at 1561 Osborne Road in the northwest tip of the county.

The Board also approved a rezone for 8.4 acres located on the north side of Moreland Heights Drive from OBP (Office Business Park District) to OIP (Office Institutional Professional District) to allow for an assisted living facility and a general office building.

Tyler McClure, through his Rhino Mini-Storage LLC, is proposing to build a 73,842-square foot assisted living facility that would consist of one single-story building with 100 beds.

In addition, the concept plans calls for construction of a 20,000-square foot single-story building to be leased to businesses.

At the beginning of the meeting on Tuesday, the Board approved the minutes of its May 4, 2021, meeting, giving Deferred Tax LLC 30 days to file an appeal with Oconee County Superior Court of the Board’s denial of the rezone request for a shopping center at the corner of Mars Hill Road and the Oconee Connector.

Other Action

At the beginning of the meeting on Tuesday, Horton announced the next Quarterly Town Hall Meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on June 16 at the Oconee County Civic Center, 2661 Hog Mountain Road.

The Board also awarded a $597,500 design services contract for the new Administrative Building to Hill Foley Rossi & Associates, with offices in Duluth.

The Board also approved a Memorandum of Agreement with the City of Watkinsville for the Oconee County Library.

The county is committing $1.3 million in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue for the library, to be located in an existing building at Wire Park.

The Board also approved a contract amendment for the Eagle Tavern restoration project in the amount of $27,669 due to newly discovered problems in the work. The museum is expected to be closed through August.

In March, the Commission awarded a contract for $442,000 to Garland & Associates Contractors of Bogart for restoration of the foundations of both Eagle Tavern and the Central School House in Heritage Park.

Funding comes from SPLOST.

The Board also approved award of the Community Development Block Grant Construction Contract for the Senior Center Expansion Project to Bayne Development Group of Winder in the amount of $763,737.


The videos below are recorded from the live streaming of the June 1 and May 25 meetings of the Board of Commissioners and of the May 25 budget hearing.

Waters began his comments to the Board at 1:48 in the June 1 video.

Discussion of the proposed special use and special exception variance for the food and retail court on Hog Mountain Road begins at 30:20 in the video.

Citizen comment begins at 16:50 in the video of the May 25 budget hearing.

I have included the May 25 agenda-setting meeting, which followed the budget hearing, for completeness.

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