The three members of the Oconee County Board of Education who attended the public hearing on Monday evening on the proposed 9.8 percent increase in property taxes for Oconee County Schools got an earful.
The increase is “incomprehensible,” “unconscionable,” “ridiculous, absolutely absurd,” “a tax grab,” “nuts,” in the words of the 12 speakers at the 38-minute-long session.
Senior citizens were particularly critical, saying they are being taxed but, in their view, they get no benefits from the schools.
The three Board Members at the public hearing on the tax increase on Monday morning got off easier, with only one of the three citizens who spoke being strongly critical of the Board and the tax increase.
Board members rarely respond to comments from citizens in public meetings, and only Board Member Tim Burgess commented on Monday, suggesting to one of those who complained about the tax increase at the evening session that she should talk to the county tax assessor instead.
Three members of the five-member Board make up a quorum for the legally required public hearings on the tax increase, and Burgess was joined by Member Michael Ransom and Board Chair Kim Argo on Monday evening.
Ransom, Argo and Board Member Wayne Bagley made up the quorum at Monday morning’s hearing.
Board Member Amy Parrish, who is the only one of the five seeking re-election in November, did not attend either public hearing.
The final tax hearing is set for 5:30 p.m. in Monday, just before the Board’s 6 p.m. work session, at which the Board it is scheduled to adopt the millage rate for 2022.
Liz Harlow, Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, started both of the hearings on Monday with a brief summary of the purpose of tax hearings.
“The Board has tentatively adopted a millage rate of 16.25 mills, which is a decrease of .25 mills from last year’s millage rate,” Harlow said at the morning meeting.
“The law requires that the millage rate be advertised as a property tax increase because the result of the assessed value of the property in our county is greater than it was a year ago,” she continued.
“In order to not advertise as an increase the millage rate would be no more than 14.8 mills,” she said.
“The Board is required to hold three hearings for the purpose of listening to the public,” she continued.
The Board will have met the legal requirements for approving its budget and adopting its millage rate with the third hearing on Monday, Harlow said.
Harlow did not mention the 9.8 percent increase in the millage rate in her comments, though it appears in the legal advertisement the Board placed in The Oconee Enterprise before the hearing.
The difference between a 14.8 millage rate that would represent no tax increase and the millage rate of 16.25 proposed by the Board is 1.45. That 1.45 is an increase of 9.8 percent over the 14.8 figure.
Argo opened the public comment period of the 9 a.m. Monday meeting by telling those present they had only three minutes each to address the Board.
“If, in fact, the millage rate has decreased from 16.5 to 16.25 year-over-year, then that’s actually a good thing,” Jeff Bullune, the first to speak, said.
“My request of the Board would be more direct and clear communication so Oconee County citizens can understand what’s going on with this advertised tax increase,” he continued.
The Board has talked with pride about the drop in the millage rate, but it has not talked in public meetings about what it would have had to have done to avoid a tax increase.
Laura King told the Board that “right now people are struggling. Inflation that we know is eight or nine percent, probably higher. And incomes are not keeping up with inflation.”
“People are on fixed incomes,” she said, “and a series of tax increases like this kind of really hurts.”
Jeff Hood said “I stood here at budget hearings back in the spring and I thanked you all for you providing us a stellar school system. And I stand by that statement.”
“I do ask today though as you contemplate voting on our FY 2023 School Budget next Monday that you be financially responsible, which I feel like you are, but take a hard look at this. And make certain that any increase in the millage rate is justified.”
“We’d like to thank each of you for coming. Thank you,” Argo said in closing the meeting.
Evening Session Starts
The meeting room at the Superintendent’s Office was much more crowded when Harlow made her introductory comments at the beginning of the 6 p.m. session.
“As you can tell, I’m a senior,” Carol Nimmons, the first citizen to speak, said. “And that’s why I’m here. Most every one I talk with has their taxes go up every year. Along with our increased property values and inflation, it makes it a hard hit for many, especially seniors, who have been paying school taxes for years.”
“But with increased property values and inflation, and the present, rough, tough times, especially for young families, did you sharpen your pencils and do some figuring?” Nimmons asked. “You might have come up with not having to increase taxes by 9.80 percent.”
Michael Edwards said he moved to Oconee County three years ago from California.
“My tax bill is higher here than in Sacramento, California,” he said. “I find that incomprehensible.”
“We are estimated to pay $4,300 this year in property taxes,” he said, “and $3,500 of that is school taxes.”
“I’m 68 years old, almost 69. I don’t have any children in school. I get no direct benefit from this tax grab,” Edwards said.
“The reality of this current economic crisis we’re in is that everybody has to make do with less,” Edwards said. “The property owners are not your personal ATMs.”
More On Seniors
“I did not even know about this until yesterday,” Pat Daugherty said. “And I have to say, not much stuns me anymore, but this stunned me. Completely.”
“In this economy, where all citizens are struggling--all citizens are struggling--the very idea that we would want to raise property taxes on everyone almost 10 percent is just unconscionable to me,” Daugherty said.
“And so I hope this really is a listening meeting,” Daugherty said. “I hope it is a hearing meeting, because this is serious. This is hurting a lot of people. And I just don’t think its fair. I don’t think it’s thought through. And I really, really object to it.”
“About 70 percent of our taxes goes to the schools,” Steve Worthham said. “I haven’t had a student in the Oconee County School System in over 25 years.”
“Let take a look at it,” Wortham said. “With inflation going as it is right now. Up 10 percent basically. On all goods. Foods and everything. We on a fixed income need some relief. Not just now, but all in the future.”
Wortham said voters in the Republican Primary in May had said they wanted to give seniors a tax break.
“Let’s look at it,” he said. “Let’s have some interaction from you guys. Let’s have some dialog.”
Interaction With Burgess
Debbie Galvin said “I don’t understand why our property taxes are going up so high especially when we haven’t done any improvements on any of our properties. But yet our taxes go up almost 10 percent. That is ridiculous, absolutely absurd.”
“This is not easy. This is not easy,” she said. “I am on a fixed income. A reduced income because of the loss of my husband. And then I get these taxes.”
“Was your house, was the value of your home, reassessed upwards this year?” Burgess asked Galvin.
Galvin said it had been.
“Have you had any conversation with the tax assessor, his office, about why that was?” Burgess asked.
“No, but I’m going to,” Galvin said.
“Your house was increased. The assessment of your home was increased this year?” Burgess asked again.
“Like I didn’t do anything,” Galvin said. “Like no added on buildings or anything like that. Just upkeep.”
“But according to the tax assessor your property is worth more this year than it was last year?” Burgess asked again.
“Yes,” Galvin responded.
“I thank you for everything you do,” David Lawrence said. “I’m a big believer in public education.”
Lawrence said people should pay school taxes even if they don’t have children in the schools.
“I believe that our county is the way it is because of all of us in this room, and because of our school system, we attract people here because of that.”
“I also understand Mr. Burgess’ question about all of our property value went up,” Lawrence said. “But that doesn’t mean my income went up. My income has not gone up.”
Pamela Hendrix spoke next and said “I spent Saturday night, with two other friends, making 22 signs because I feel so strongly about this. It is unconscionable to me, in this environment.”
She put up the hand-lettered signs before the Monday meetings on right of way leading up to the school property where the meeting was held.
“I know people that are not filling up their gas tanks,” Hendrix said. “They just are putting a little bit in at a time. They can’t afford to. And I know people that their grocery bill had quadrupled. And people are hurting.”
“The biggest thing here is that I need the school system to figure out how to spend less,” Hendrix said. “When you don’t roll back this rate to 14.8, you are getting a tax windfall. And it’s on the backs of us. And it’s really hard.”
More Stories Relayed
“It’s been an extremely disappointing event to see the lack of communication from the Board of Education that we all elected,” Ginger Redwine said. “I would ask you all to think about your conscience as to what kind of financial burden you all are putting on the people that have elected you.”
Two women who spoke who did not give an address, so it was impossible for me to check their names.
“We as a family with a child with a disability, it is going to be incredibly hard to continue living here and we do not want to move, but if you all price us out we will have no choice,” one of those said.
“I would appreciate if you would reconsider what you are doing,” she said. “It is unconscionable to be doing this in this economic time that we’re in right now.”
“We’ve only been here since 2019,” another woman said. “Our property taxes have gone up $1,200 in three years. And a big portion of that does go to the schools.”
“And I don’t mind supporting schools,” she continued. “But like everybody else here today, we all have to live within our means. I have cancer medicine that bills my insurance company $15,000 a month. And we have a 10 percent co-pay on that.”
“I don’t want to move again,” she said. “I’m getting too old. I love it in Oconee. I was hoping this is where I’m going to stay. But it’s making it real difficult.”
“With all of this development, you should be reaping the benefit without having to add more burden to your people that are already here,” she continued.
“Last year we voted for you to have an ELOST so you can build that new middle school and other things that you need to do. So we are already giving you more money.” she said.
“We don’t need another increase,” she continued. “We can’t afford it. We can’t.”
Praise For Board Again
“I think we have a top grade Board of Education and educators in our community,” Steven Strickland said. “However I’ll echo the sentiment of many in the room here that I oppose the 9.8 percent increase. I think that consideration should be given to rollback the millage.”
“I’m a business owner here in Oconee Count,” Paul Popov said. “The economy is terrible. Everything is pricy. I can’t get parts. I can’t get components.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my 54 years of life,” Popov continued.
“I want to thank you,” he added. “You all do a wonderful job. You have a wonderful school system here. That’s not a question. I love the job you guys do.”
“But the reality of it is, don’t do this,” he said. “Roll it back. It’s not the time to do it. We’re hurting. Everybody’s hurting. Everybody’s hurting.
“You don’t need to increase taxes right now,” Popov said. “What you need to do is drop back and punt like the rest of us, tighten your belt and figure out how you can cut this budget to accommodate for what is going in the economy.”
Two people who signed up passed when given the chance because they said others said what they wanted to so.
“If there is no further discussion, the meeting is adjourned,” Argo said when Popov finished his comments.
Because I am immune compromised, and on the advice of my doctors, I did not attend either of the meetings on Monday
I asked someone who did attend to make an audio recording of the morning meeting.
Pam Hendrix agreed to use my camera and tripod to video record the evening session.
Oconee County Schools did not video record either of the sessions.
The video below is the only known record of that second, more contentious meeting.
I transcribed the audio and video recording of both of these sessions and selected parts of what each of the speakers said in my summary above. But what I selected is only a part in each case,
The full comments are included in the video below.