Oconee County Schools Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow told Board of Education members at the start of their final tax hearing last week that state law required them to gather “for the purpose of listening to the public.”
Before citizens were given a chance to speak, however, Board Member Tim Burgess talked for 10-minutes about the importance of the proposed nearly10 percent tax increase–which most citizens present had come to oppose–for maintaining the school system’s fund balance.
When Burgess finished and Board Chair Kim Argo opened up the meeting for public comment, she told the citizens in the crowded room that it was their turn to speak. She also said that each speaker would be given only three minutes at the podium.
Following those comments by the public, Board Member Amy Parrish acknowledged the “energy and passion” of the 16 speakers, but she also said the Board had heard from others not complaining about the tax increase and needed to consider the “entire community” in making its decision about the tax increase.
The Board voted on the tax rate at the meeting that followed that final hearing, but not before Burgess again spoke--this time for 11 and a half minutes--about the appropriateness of the budget that included the tax increase.
Board Member Wayne Bagley said he agreed with Burgess, but he also said that the budget was based on preliminary data that underestimated the size of the county’s tax digest and the amount of revenue the proposed tax increase would produce.
The Board could afford to drop the tax rate--not the .25 mills originally proposed and requested by Superintendent Jason Branch--but rather by a full mill, Bagley said.
Almost without further comment, the Board agreed, voting unanimously to decrease the millage rate to 15.5 rather than the proposed 16.25, producing a tax increase of 4.7 percent rather than the originally proposed 9.8 percent.
No Record Of Hearings
Oconee County Schools did not video record any of the three public hearings on the proposed tax increase, though it does record its regular meetings, including the one that followed the public hearing on Aug. 1 in that very same room.
|Screen Shot Beginning Of Meeting 8/1/2022|
The video recording of that Aug. 1 meeting, at which the Board voted to cut the millage rate by a full point, is incomplete, however, and ends abruptly before the Board members discussed and then voted on Branch’s request.
Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, Director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, said in an email on Aug. 8 that “Unfortunately the second part of the meeting did not get recorded.”
As of the end of the day on Friday, Oconee County Schools has produced written minutes of only the final hearing on Aug. 1, and those minutes contain a list of the names and addresses of the 16 speakers.
The minutes do not give any indication of what the speakers told the Board, nor do they include the comments made by Burgess or the other Board members during the hearing.
They do include a summary of a brief exchange between a “board member” and Harlow at the beginning of the meeting. That unidentified Board member was Burgess.
Superintendent Branch told the Board during the final public hearing that the hearing was being recorded, but there is no evidence that recording was used to produce the published minutes.
The minutes of the Aug. 1 meeting at which the millage rate was adopted contain brief summaries of the comments of some of the Board members that preceded the vote, but the Board members making the comments again are not identified.
I was able to obtain an audio recording of the first public tax hearing on the morning of July 25 at which three people spoke.
Pam Hendrix, using my camera and tripod, video recorded the second public hearing on the afternoon of that same day. Twelve people spoke at that hearing.
I posted a summary of the comments of the citizens who spoke at those two hearings on July 29.
I also posted a report on the Board decision to roll back the millage rate to 15.5 from 16.5 based on the partial video of that Aug. 1 meeting.
Last weekend I was able to obtain an audio recording of both the Aug. 1 public hearing and of the full Board meeting that followed.
What Recording Shows
The recordings of the Aug. 1 hearing and of the Board meeting make document that all but one of the citizens who spoke at the public hearing on Aug. 1 was critical of the Board.
Former State Rep. Chuck Williams criticized the Board for not seeking more public input before proposing the tax increase and said “We’re taxpayers. We’re not a piggy bank that you can crack whenever you want to.”
And former State Rep. Bob Smith said “People are tired, just sick and tired, of paying more taxes.”
Hendrix, who long has been active in the local Republican Party, reminded the five Board members that “every last one of you ran as a Republican.”
“I just want to warn you,” she continued. “We’re going to start looking at every penny."
“Now is not the time for an increase,” Julie Mauck, a former member of the Oconee County Republican Party Executive Committee and an unsuccessful School Board candidate, said. “It’s a time for some heroes.”
Parrish is the only member of the Board up for re-election in November. Independent Ryan Repetske also is on the ballot for Post 2, which Parrish holds.
The audio recording also makes it clear how abrupt and inconsistent with the earlier comments of Board members, and of Burgess in particular, the final decision to roll back the millage rate by a full mill was.
After Bagley proposed that the millage rate cut be four times the one initially proposed–going from a .25 cut to a full 1 mill cut–there was no discussion of the impact this change would have on the revenue projected in the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget already approved by the Board.
Neither Superintendent Branch nor Chief Financial Officer Harlow was asked to comment, and neither offered any comment on his or her own.
Harlow was not asked to provide a revised budget, and none has subsequently been submitted to the Board.
I asked Jimenez, Director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, via an email on Aug. 11 when she expected a revised budget would be produced.
“The final budget as approved remains,” she wrote in response.
Using the audio recordings I obtained, I transcribed fully the comments of each of the Board members who spoke at the hearing on Aug. 1 and before the final vote on the millage rate at the meeting that followed.
Several of the citizens at the Aug. 1 hearing commented on how unusual it is for Board members to speak publicly.
I also listened to all of and transcribed major parts of comments by citizens.
Based on these audio recordings and the transcriptions, I have produced a summary of the hearing and of the meeting below.
My earlier post had included nothing from the hearing and nothing about the discussion of the request by Branch for the 16.25 millage rate before action was taken, reducing that rate to 15.5
At the bottom of this post, I also have provided a complete transcription of the lengthy comments of Bagley, Burgess, and Parrish.
The summary below only pulls out parts of those comments, so the transcription is the only available record at this point of what these Board members actually said at the hearing and before taking the vote rejecting Branch’s recommendation.
Opening Of Meeting
Harlow began the hearing on Aug. 1 as she had the hearings on July 25.
She paraphrased the basic information contained in the legal advertisement the Board was required to publish in the county’s Legal Organ, The Oconee Enterprise.
That advertisement first appeared on page B3 of the July 14, 2022, edition of the paper.
“The Board has tentatively adopted a millage rate of 16.25 mills,” Harlow said, “which is a decrease of .25 mills from last year’s millage rate.”
“The law requires the millage rate to be advertised as a property tax increase as a result of the assessed value of the property here in the county being 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 14.80 mills,” she said.
“The Board is required to hold three hearings for the purpose of listening to the public on any thoughts they may have,” she continued.
The difference between the 16.25 and 14.8 is 1.45, and 1.45 is an increase of 9.8 percent over 14.8. The advertisement lists the property tax increase as 9.8 percent.
Burgess Questions Harlow
When Harlow had finished speaking, Board Chair Argo recognized Burgess rather than begin the hearing.
“We’ve heard a lot of comments from last week about the fund balance,” Burgess said. “Do you know what the current estimate is for what it is likely to cost to open Dove Creek Middle School?”
Harlow responded: “$4 million.”
“Where is this going to come, the $4 million?” Burgess asked.
“Out of our reserves,” Harlow responded.
“The reserves,” Burgess said. “$4 million of our reserves will be set aside to open up the middle school. That’s already been planned for. That’s already been allocated.”
“We’re in the middle of doing a lot of renovations at our elementary schools in addition to the new middle school, renovations at some of the other schools,” Burgess continued.
More Questions From Burgess
“Do you know how much has been set aside or is going to be required to cover those renovations for those schools that are ongoing and that are going to be continuing for the next 12 months or so?” Burgess asked.
“We set aside about $3 million and that includes a set aside for debt requirements,” Harlow responded.
“Future debt requirements,” Burgess said. “Debt obligations for the school system and renovation costs at some of our elementary schools is coming out of that within the pandemic. Is that correct?”
“That’s right,” Harlow said.
“What’s our monthly payroll as it stands?” Burgess asked.
“Approximately $6.3 million,” Harlow responded.
“So based on the budget that we approved, we have started the payroll on July 1 at that $6.3 a month?” Burgess asked.
“That is correct,” Harlow responded.
“How do we cover that expense before the ad valorem taxes are available to us from the Tax Commissioner’s Office?” Burgess asked.
“From our Fund Balance,” Harlow responded.
“So those reserves that we maintain and operate from are used for several months. My memory is it will be probably November or more likely December before we start substantially getting even tax revenue from ad valorem taxes,” Burgess continued.
“That is correct,” Harlow said.
“So July, August, September, October, end of November, we’re going to be covering the payroll for all of our teachers and all of our employees in the school system from those reserves, and without those reserves we would not be able to make those payments for those payroll expenses up until we start actually getting ad valorem taxes?” Burgess asked.
“Correct. That is correct,” Harlow said.
“Does ELOST come into that?” Board Member Michael Ransom asked.
“No,” Harlow responded.
“I want to make a couple of comments, too,” Burgess then said, and he launched into a lengthy justification for maintaining a large fund balance.
|Screen Shot Board 8/8/2022 Meeting|
Bagley, Parrish, Branch, Argo, Burgess,
Zoe Gattie, Executive Assistant To Branch (L-R)
In the budget approved by the Board, the estimated Fund Balance on June 30, 2022, is 30.7 million, and that figure is projected to grow to $32.5 million by June 30, 2022.
The budget lists $7.1 million as “Unencumbered Expenditures,” corresponding to the $4 million and about $3 million Harlow used in responding to Burgess.
Burgess ended by saying “I need to say this, given my perspective on why reserve funds are legitimate–the reasons that organizations maintain and what they’re used for.”
“I’ve seen you advocate for a reduction in fund balances,” Parrish commented. “So you’ve been on both sides.”
“There are times when you can do that and times when you can’t based on what you know,” Burgess said.
“I don’t have qualms with maintaining an adequate reserve that is sufficient to deal with our needs,” Burgess said. “If people suggest otherwise, then that is not a fiscally responsible thing for an organization of our size and our budget and our demands.”
The complete transcription of Burgess’ comments is below.
Citizen Response On Fund Balance
Steve Edwards, the first citizen to the podium, said “I am just outraged that the Board wants a 10 percent increase.”
“Your surplus is 30 percent,” Edwards continued. “That seems excessive to me.”
“You are not good stewards of our money,” he said.
The Total Anticipated Expenditures in the approved Fiscal Year 2023 budget is $90.2 million.
The estimated fund balance is either $32.5 million or the $25.3 million Burgess preferred be used.
Former Representative Williams
Former Republican Rep. Williams spoke next, and he said he was “was disappointed to have read--and see tonight--that we don’t have every member of the Board has attended all three of these public hearings.”
“Unless someone is in the hospital or has a family member in the hospital, I think it is unconscionable that Board members did not show enough interest for this kind of citizen interest to be here.”
At that point in the meeting only Board Member Bagley was absent, though he did join the group later in the hearing.
“Wayne’s mother is in the hospital and she’s having some health issues,” Ransom told Williams.
Parrish missed both of the hearings on July 25.
Burgess missed the morning session, and Bagley missed the afternoon one on that day.
“We’ve all been informed of the comment that has been said,” Parrish told Williams. “I had to be away for business reasons that couldn’t be changed,” she added.
Confusion Over Percentages
“I’m not sure what the tax increase really is,” Williams said. “Whether it’s 9.8. Your own ad in The Oconee Enterprise here shows that you’re going to raise real property taxes by $5.5 million, which is 13.67 percent from last year.”
“So I ask, number one, what is the real property increase. I know you all have all sorts of ways of playing with numbers,” Williams said.
No one responded to Williams.
The 9.8 percent represents the percent change from the millage rate of 14.8 to the proposed millage rate of 16.25.
The 13.7 percent represents the growth in projected collected school taxes at the 16.25 mill rate from $40.3 million in 2021 to $45.8 in 2022.
“I don’t know whether the Fund Balance is enough, too much, not enough, or what,” Williams said. “But I will say that the way that the school system and the Board has tried to use the reevaluation of real property to affect the backdoor tax increase is not right.”
“We know that the millage rate is just a number that you back into once you know what the tax digest is and how much money you want to extract from taxpayers,” Williams said.
“That’s all the millage rate is. So to brag that the school system, that this is the lowest millage rate of the century, when in fact our taxes are going up 10 percent, 12, 14 percent, I just don’t understand why you all would want to play that kind of game with the taxpayers,” Williams continued.
“I don’t know how much money you need,” Williams said. “But this Board and this system have not done an adequate job with these three little perfunctory that are required by state law. We know that is the reason we’re here tonight. Because state law requires for us to be here for 30-minute hearings on a $5 million tax increase.”
“Why did you not seize the opportunity, if you had the need, why didn’t you hold a town hall meetings similar to what the (Oconee County) Commissioners do and have an open mic rather than having 15 or 20 minutes with a three minute egg timer running?” Williams asked.
“Why didn’t you all come to us as taxpayers and say look, evaluations are up. Here’s what our needs are. Here’s what we’re asking you as taxpayers basically provide us to run this school system,” Williams said.
“I am here to complain,” William S. Mayberry said. “I arrived in strong opposition to what is going on here.”
“Property value may have gone up, but that does not translate into a cash flow that is available for those of us that are retired,” Ian Taylor said. “The value of property goes up. So what? You’ve got to find the money to pay your taxes.”
“Increasing taxes at this point in time is wrong,” he said. “The economy is wrong. It is the wrong time. It is absolutely wrong and unconscionable to increase our taxes right now.”
“Amidst historic inflation, energy, food and endless cost increases, we are being asked to accept yet another large tax increase of almost 10 percent,” Johnny Prescott said.
“I implore you not to hide behind the county tax assessor as a political shield,” Prescott said. “Exercise your discretionary powers and roll the millage rate back to 14.8 to avoid this increase. The Board of Commissioners did, and you should as well.”
The Oconee County Board of Commissioners rolled back the millage rate to the level required so that there was no tax increase in the county.
With the new adopted rate of 5.954 for the unincorporated parts of the county and 6.804 for property inside the county’s four cities, and the 15.5 mills adopted by the Board at the end of the meeting, the percentage of the property taxes going to the schools in 2022 is 72.2 (unincorporated) and 69.5 (incorporated).
“I just would echo what a lot of these others are saying,” Mike Hale said. “I cannot say it near as eloquently probably as they have.”
“Everyone has to work within their budget,” he said. “I don’t have somebody to turn to say I need 10 percent more.”
“I’m proud to see my tax assessment go up,” he said. “It make me feel like I’m worth a little something. But I ain’t looking to sell my place. I’m planning to die right there. And I hope you don’t tax me out of it.”
“Maybe you need to go back and put a little more insight into how you’re dividing that budget, because there may be things that are not necessarily needed,” Greg Morin
David Lawrence was the only speaker who approved of the tax increase.
“It’s great to see Republicans doing what’s right, what’s fiscally responsible, and raising our taxes,” he said. “Hopefully you’ll look at a bigger Board room. Hopefully you’ll look at pay increases for veteran teachers.”
“I believe in a solid educational system,” Emily Givens said. “But I also believe in fiscal responsibility.”
“There needs to be a tax break for people 65 and over,” Givens said. “And, as I have written several of you on this Board, and I have received polite responses back, I am hopeful that the word advisement means dropping this proposal.”
“Oconee County citizens cannot afford this tax increase, especially in a recession,” she said. “We just can’t do it.”
“I actually went to see the county Tax Commissioner the other day and asked her, do you have any information about tax exemptions for senior citizens,” Burgess said. “I being a senior citizen, in that category.” Jennifer Riddle is the Oconee County Tax Commissioner.
“She said yes, see that table over there. There’s a bunch of brochures on table. She said, pick one up,” Burgess continued.
“In that brochure there are five--five--separate tax exemptions that individuals 62 and 65 can apply for with various qualification to exempt some or some component of both school taxes and county taxes,” Burgess said.
“These are currently available. In the Tax Commissioner’s Office. Available to all of us,” Burgess said.
“It’s becoming more apparent to me, as I listen to more people talk, people don’t know these. They don’t know that these are already available, and have been available, for quite a while. So I have one. I’m sure she’ll give anybody one that wants one if they want one too. I just wanted to put that out.”
In Oconee County, each person who is 65 years old or older is granted an exemption of $15,000 on a homestead owned and occupied by that person if the person’s net income, together with the income of a spouse sharing the residence, does not exceed $15,000 per year.
In addition, each person who is 65 years old or older can be granted an exemption from all county and school taxes on that person’s primary residence if the person’s gross household income does not exceed $46,027 for the preceding year.
“I will say that a 10 percent tax increase I think is indefensible,” John Webb said.
“The Board of Commissioners, they’re poised to reduce the county’s millage rate enough to offset the increase in property taxes,” Webb said. “My question is why can’t you?”
“Much attention and praise has been given to the proposed reduction in the millage rate by 25 basis points,” he said. “But this reduction will still result in a tax increase of almost 10 percent.”
“When people view taxpayers’ money as their money, that starts a downward slide, and indicator of future failure,” Jason Davis said. “What I mean by that is, if the voices of the people who are concerned don’t reach the ears of those who are in public service, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”
“I wouldn’t view the current money you have available as your money,” he said. “It’s the people’s money that’s been taxed from them.”
Mauck On Clarke County
“I just want to say if money made a great school system, Clarke County would be eating our lunch,” Mauck said. “They’re not.”
|Screen Shot Harlow Before Board 8/1/2022|
“Roll the millage rate back to 14.8,” she said. “Give us all a little bit of a break. Help us out. We’re willing to do without a few things for our students.”
“As a realtor, things I think you need to take into consideration,” Jen White said. “With the interest rates increasing, raising taxes will make it harder on the buyers because every little bit of their budget.”
“I hope that this Board will pay attention to what everybody is saying here,” Eva Leonard said.
“Make sure that this is necessary and that at this time, at this particular time,” she said. “I think people are scared. And people are worried about the future. And so I think that this timing seems off.”
“It is just a really rough time for people,” Hendrix, an attorney, said. “I deal with a lot of people who are recently widowed. It is hard for me to even charge a fee now. A lot of them can’t afford it. They are really struggling.”
“Oconee County is supposed to be one the reddest counties in Georgia, Republican,” Hendrix continued. “And every last one of you ran as a Republican.”
“And you know that means, small, limited government. It means fiscally conservative. It means trying to aim for low taxes,” Hendrix said. “And, you know, that’s not what this is. And this is the wrong time to be raising people’s taxes.”
“It is time to hold the line. Time to hold the line. Enough is enough,” Smith, Republican former state representative and former Watkinsville mayor, said.
“I call on you to hold the line on taxes,” he said. “No new taxes. No new taxes.”
“I’d like to just make a comment,” Parrish said when Smith left the podium.
Argo had let the meeting run nearly an hour, rather than the scheduled half hour, to give everyone a chance to offer comments.
“I appreciate you all being here and speaking very, very much,” Parrish continued.
“We just dealt with this with COVID,” Parrish said. “We had a lot of energy and passion, and the majority of that came from the side that didn’t want us to be back in-person. And that wanted mask mandates. They were very loud. And they were very vocal.”
“Had we gone along with that energy and passion, we would not have been back in school. And there were times when I wanted to listen to them. But my fellow Board members, the superintendent, other leaders said let’s do what the majority of our community wants. Not just the loudest.”
“So while I value being here and we do take that seriously, we have to listen to the entire community also. So just know that we are doing that in all of our decisions. We’re trying to balance everybody’s needs.”
The entirety of Parrish’s comments is below.
Vote On Millage Rate
At the end of the regular meeting of the School Board, under Action Items, Superintendent Branch told the Board “We only have one action item tonight. That is to set the millage rate.”
“You need to transmit that information to the Board of Commissioners tomorrow morning so they can set the millage rate along with all of the other taxing authorities.”
The Board of Commissioners officially sets the rate voted on by the School Board and by the councils of the four cities in the county.
“And so based on the budget before you, we recommend the Board adopt the millage rate of 16.25,” Branch said.
This set Burgess off on a discussion of more than 11 minutes that responded to many of the comments citizens had made in the public hearing.
“Over the last 10 days we heard a lot of things from bloggers and political activists that represent a lot of things that I personally believe are inaccurate and misleading reports,” he said.
“I just want to take a minute to make a point. First, the actions that the Board is considering taking tonight to lower our millage rate do not in a sense, do not by themselves, increase the tax burden on any individuals,” Burgess said.
“We are considering lowering the millage rate that, if your property is not reassessed and considered more valuable than it was last year, you would actually get a tax reduction.”
Allen Skinner, Chief Appraiser for Oconee County, told me in an email message on Aug. 11 that “99 percent of property owners received some type of increase this year, improved and vacant,” in their assessment this year.
“There’s also been an insinuation that I was critical of the tax assessor,” Burgess said. “I want to clear that up. I actually went and met with the tax assessor. Didn’t know Mr. Skinner. Knew who he was. Didn’t know him. Actually went and met with him this week. He gave me an hour and a half of his personal time.”
“Quite a man,” Burgess said. “And I can tell you after talking to him for an hour and a half, I was very, very impressed with his professionalism, his preparation, his attention to details and the information that he has and shared with me about those issues in this county.”
“I also know from previous history, and he cleared this up too, he is doing his job,” Burgess said. “He is doing exactly what he is supposed to do. The state of Georgia Department of Revenue requires a comprehensive, up-to-date, value assessment on a routine basis. And they check on him.”
Burgess retired as Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and University Chief Financial Officer at the University of Georgia. Prior to that he spent five years as State Budget Director, reporting directly to the Governor.
“I’ve heard a lot about how we should just be more efficient,” Burgess said. “Cut the fat. Cut the waste. Cut the abuse. I’ve heard that all my life.”
“We developed a budget that starts with Liz and Dr. Branch and his staff,” Burgess said. “They spent two months developing a budget before we ever get involved in it.”
“So they’re going for two months in analyzing, developing, prioritizing the things in our budget,” he said. “Then we get in. And we know, we spend six, sometimes eight weeks going through that with Jason and his staff, looking through the budget, talking about what we need. What we can do without? And detail analyzing that budget.”
“Then it is published for the public to see,” Burgess said. “There is several weeks for the public to know what is out there. Then we have public hearings. The people can come in, address things about the budget. Comment about the budget.”
“So to suggest that there’s not an open, transparent process that let’s, one, evaluation happen with staff and then thus the public, I think its misleading,” he said.
Personnel Part Of Budget
“Ninety-one percent of this budget for Fiscal 23 that starts in July is personnel. Ninety-one percent,” Burgess said.
“Anyone who wants to suggest or argue that we have too many teachers, we have too many counselors, we have too many paraprofessionals, we have too many school nurses, we have too many custodians cleaning our buildings, then I’m willing to listen to them,” he said.
“But that 91 percent of your budget is attached to people’s salaries suggests that it’s all in staffing. And I have not seen any suggestion or evidence that we have too many in our buildings as it is,” he said.
“You also have to suggest that all of these people are overpaid,” he continued. “Well, I don’t feel that way either. I’ve spent hours over the years analyzing this budget. We’ve done HR personnel studies and on and on. I don’t think our folks are overpaid either.”
“My point, my end point is this,” he said. “Our school system is the heart and soul of the community. It is the thing that we prosper from.”
“And if an investment in our school system is not what we’re willing to spend, then we have a different set of values than what I come to this meeting with,” Burgess said.
A full transcription of Burgess’ comment is below.
Bagley Wants To Comment
Argo called for a motion on Dr. Branch’s recommendation that the millage rate be set at 16.25, but no offered one.
|Screen Shot Dallas LeDuff Before Board|
Last Screen Before Video Ends
“I’ve got a little something I want to say,” Bagley said. “I’m not going to repeat what Tim said although I agree 100 percent with what he said. I don’t want to be repetitive.”
“But from my viewpoint the hours we put in on this budget, I think that it is a very responsible budget,” he said. “A very efficient budget. The school worked very hard to establish that budget based on the expectations of a excellent school system.”
“Somewhere along the way, it seems like the civic duty lost its way,” Bagley said. “I dare say there is a lot of miscommunication out there.”
“Math is math. The only way we can raise your taxes is to increase the millage rate. That’s a fact. Tim made a good point. I’m going to reiterate it because we hear the comments at the back,” Bagley said.
“If you do the math, if your assessment is the same as last year, and some may be, you never know, if you do the math, if your assessment is the same as last year, you will have lower taxes as far as the School Board part of your property tax,” Bagley said.
“If your assessment goes up, yea, your taxes will go up some,” he said. “It is just the nature of that particular county. You live in a county that is very affluent, very high end type, with expensive type home county. That should be a good thing. Taxes go up if you have nice things. They’re going to be taxed high.”
“OK. With that being said, we did that work on that budget,” Bagley said. “The majority of that work was done before we got the tax digest. We based our budget on certain assumptions that we had to make. And I think we had a really solid budget at that point.”
“We based the budget on the tax digest that we thought was going to happen,” Bagley said. “And fortunately for everybody who benefits from the tax increase, there was a healthy increase. That was after we established the original budget. And suggested the reduction of the millage rate by a quarter of a point.”
“But that being said I’m going to ask my fellow Board members to consider a further reduction of the rate to 15.5 percent,” Bagley said. “And I can put that in a motion. I suggest we adopt a 15.5 percent millage rate to make a full mill reduction from last year’s millage rate, which is an historic low for this county.”
A transcript of Bagley’s full comments is below.
Vote On Rate
“So with the growth in the tax digest it would not be a real difference....” Parrish tried to ask, but Bagley talked over her.
“That’s correct,” he said.
“Am I hearing correctly? You are recommending us to adopt a Fiscal Year 2023 millage rate of 15.5?” Argo asked.
“That’s correct,” Bagley said.
Parrish seconded the motion.
“I want to pause a little bit,” Ransom said. “I am always hesitant not to have a reserve to pay for unforeseen circumstances. But if this makes sense, I think it is good.”
“Wayne mentioned that to not tax more than we need to if the budget is bad,” he said. “I think lowering the rate is a good recommendation because we are going to fill our budget without putting too much burden. It is still putting some burden on the citizens, but I think it is a good number to work with.”
With that, the Board voted 5 to 0 to lower the millage rate to 15.5, rather than the proposed 16.25.
By state law, that is a tax increase of 4.7 percent, since 0.7 is 4.7 percent higher than the 14.8 percent rate required to have no tax increase.
The transcripts below are in the order of their reference above.
“I want to make a couple of comments, too. I’m looking at some of our history. And this is before Liz got here. So she has nothing to do with the many years. Most of us who were living around in this county in ‘06 and ‘07 and ‘08 when the economy went in the tank. And stayed in the tank for quite a while. An unanticipated deep recession. During that time we saw significant budget reductions from the state in the amount of the appropriations that were made for public education including Oconee County public education. I was the chief financial officer at the University of Georgia in ‘06 ad ‘07 and ‘08 and ‘09. So I remember that very vividly. From another vantage point. Sitting just down the road. Dealing with those same budget reductions. Associated with what do you do now? Looking back at what the school system had to do back in those days, it appears to me that we were not adequately prepared for that downturn. In ‘06 the school system actually had to raise the millage rate. Not decrease. But raise the millage rate, because of the expenses of the school system. Then again in 2012, the school system had to raise the millage rate yet again because of the operating expenses of the school system. No reserves apparently were available in sufficient quantities to avoid that. And so the only option for the people that were sitting in all of our chairs. Jason I think that was a little before you got here too. No other option was available to them but to raise the millage rate to continue our schools, pay our teachers, and operate our school system. The school system also had to furlough teachers. We had two years of furloughs for our employees, including teachers, in ‘12 and ‘13. So we had a serious downturn, huge budget cuts from the state. We had to raise the millage rate twice. We had to furlough our teachers in part I would suggest because we weren’t adequately prepared to deal with that fiscal reality. You all know my background. I’ve spent my life, I have spent my entire career in public rescue (word unclearl), whether it was in the state budget office or the department of Medicaid Budget, or University of Georgia and several places in between. I think it is the height of fiscal irresponsibility for anyone who has a fiduciary responsibility to operate any organization to not plan ahead of time and be prepared to the best of their ability to avoid serious problems like having to raise millage rates, to furlough teachers. I hope we never have to do that again. And so what I’m going, what I’m going. My point is reserves are adequate, needed, fiscally responsible things for quality organizations to maintain and manage to prepare for a downturn and prepare for unexpected things that can happen or to prepare for things that do happen and you do know are going to happen like a middle school we’re going to open next summer. And we know its going to cost $4 million. We’re not waiting around until next summer and saying where are we going to get the $4 million to operate that school and open it up. Branch’s staff, Liz’s staff, others that work in this building have prepared for that for months and years. In preparation for that. That’s the fiscally responsible thing that organizations do. To prepare for those unexpected and expected things. Renovations to the schools is the same thing. Paying payroll for five or six months is the same thing. I really don’t want to be part of a situation where because of our unwillingness or inability to plan ahead and prepare ahead that should this economy continue to deteriorate we are getting anywhere close to where we in ‘06 and ‘07 and have to raise millage rates at the worst time. Lord help us. That’s not what quality school systems do.”
“Thanks for your answers. I appreciate what you do. I need to say this, give my perspective on why reserve funds are legitimate–the reasons that organizations maintain and what they’re used for.”
“I’ve seen you advocate for a reduction in fund balances. So you’ve been on both sides.”
“There are times when you can do that and times when you can’t based on what you know. Nobody is suggesting that this school system is going to slow down its growth. We have some projections. I haven’t seen projections in a long time that suggest that this growth is going to slow. If housing starts and demand for housing is any indication, we are only at the beginning of this. Dr. Branch, to his credit, he’s spent hours and hours and talking about projections and that growth. He’s done a lot of work. I don’t have qualms with maintaining an adequate reserve that is sufficient to deal with our needs. If people suggest otherwise, then that is not a fiscally responsible thing for an organization of our size and our budget and our demands.”
“I’d like to just make a comment. And I appreciate you all being here and speaking very, very much. I think we all value that, even though I could not attend the first hearings due to a work commitment I could not avoid. All the Board members communicated with me and let me know what the sentiments were. I read all of the emails. What I would like to say is I feel like we are addressed like we are not fellow tax payers. We are. And everybody that works in leadership in the school system works here and also pays taxes. I have had to make difficult decisions in he past years ago with my own family due to property tax. So we are very aware of the impact that has on our families. And we take that seriously. We also have a huge responsibility in maintaining this awesome school system. And there are other people that are communicating with us saying they want better facilities. Why don’t we have this in the number one school system. Why does this bathroom not work. Or you know, it’s a lot to juggle. We listen to it all. The second thing that just struck me was thinking about the gentleman that mentioned the energy and passion that you have. We just dealt with this with COVID. We had a lot of energy and passion and the majority of that came from the side that didn’t want us to be back in person. And that wanted mask mandates. They were very loud. And they were very vocal. Had we gone along with that energy and passion, we would not have been back in school. And there were times when I wanted to listen to them. But my fellow Board members, the superintendent, other leaders said Let’s do what the majority of our community wants. Not just the loudest. So while I value being here and we do take that seriously, we have to listen to the entire community also. So just know that we are doing that in all of our decisions. We’re trying to balance everybody’s needs.”
“There are few things I want to say tonight. Over the last 10 days we heard a lot of things from bloggers and political activists that represent a lot of things that I personally believe are inaccurate and misleading reports. I just want to take a minute to make a point. First, the action that they Board is considering taking tonight to lower our millage rate do not in a sense, do not by themselves increase the tax burden on any individuals. We are considering lowering the millage rate that, if your property is not reassessed and considered more valuable than it was last year, you would actually get a tax reduction. I’m sorry that a lot of people that were here earlier today that were talking about a lot of things aren’t still here. But I do see a few people so I appreciate your staying around. There’s also been an insinuation that I was critical of the tax assessor. I want to clear that up. I actually went and met with the tax assessor. Didn’t know Mr. Skinner. Knew who he was. Didn’t know him. Actually went and met with him this week. He gave me an hour and a half of his personal time. He is very different. Quite a man. And I can tell you after talking to him for an hour and a half I was very, very impressed with his professionalism, his preparation, his attention to details and the information that he has and shared with me about those issues in this county. I also know from previous history and he cleared this up too, he is doing his job. He is doing exactly what he is supposed to do. The state of Georgia Department of Revenue requires a comprehensive, up-to-date value assessment on a routine basis. And they check on him. Several days before I met with him he’d actually had a revenue agent in his office going through his files, checking on some things, making sure that Oconee County was staying current in their evaluations. So to suggest that I’m being critical of that gentleman because he is doing his job is inaccurate. And I appreciate what he is doing.”
“Now, one of the questions that comes to mind when it comes to these property reassessments is why are so many people trying to move to this county. You’ve seen this before, in the mail, this is just one from last month. One real estate company. Caldwell Banker. They list the properties that they sold in our county. This is from this month. This is no different from the one I saw three months ago. It is almost routine that these homes that are selling in the county, they’re on the market one, two, three, four days max. If you look at all of these charts. What’s really interesting is the asking price. Most of these people get at least 100 percent of what they ask for their homes. A lot of them are getting more than what they even ask for. And it is selling in a few days. So it is apparent that the demand to move here in this county is just huge. Therefore driving up property values because prices for which people are willing to sell properties--pay for homes. I personally believe that is because we have a qualify, first-class education system that people want to come to. That is why they are doing everything they can to come here. Interestingly enough, I asked Mr. Skinner his perspective. In the course of our meeting, he said to me ‘My office is in thousands of peoples home a year doing these re-evaluations they do on a rotating schedule.’ And asked him. He said, ‘we talk to these people. We let them know we’re coming and we’re going to be doing an evaluation. We’re doing square footage calculations and so on.’ And he said, ‘Without a doubt the very, single most reason that we hear over and over and over why people are coming here is the school system.’ That’s what’s driving demand. That’s what’s driving reappraisals. And it something that we should not only be proud of but aware of. Now in addition to the fact that the actions this Board is considering taking would be lowering the millage rate and therefore it probably would not revalue the pie. It would actually be a tax cut. But that seems to be lost in the shuffle. I already mentioned earlier my comment about all of the tax breaks. I heard over and over and over that there are no tax breaks and we need a tax exemption for senior citizens. I mentioned earlier that I stopped at the Tax Commissioner Office and I just asked for a brochure and they gave it to me. They have a file there. So that needs to be out there. We do in this county have tax exemptions for senior citizens, 62 and 65. We have a lot of talk that people an avail themselves of that.”
“It is well known that our county is growing by leaps and bounds, figures that the newspaper just put in the paper the other day. I know the Census here in 2010 was 32,800. The 2020 Census was 41,800. That’s a 27 percent increase in the population of this county in 10 years. By comparison, the state of Georgia was 10.6 percent. So Oconee grew by almost three times the rate that the state grew. I asked Dr. Branch to give us some figures about our schools. He shared those with me. In 2010, we had 6,489 students. In 2020, we 8,224. That’s a 27 percent increase as well. The population grew by 27 percent. Our student population grew by 27 percent. In a decade. Tremendous growth. Tremendous demand. That it is incumbent upon us to be prepared for and respond to. I have nothing but praise for Dr. Branch and his staff and their planning dedication to making sure that we plan forward and looking down the road not backwards.”
“I’ve heard a lot about how we should just be more efficient. Cut the fat. Cut the waste. Cut the abuse. I’ve heard that all my life. We developed a budget that starts with Liz and Dr. Branch and his staff. The spent two months developing a budget before we ever get involved in it. So they’re going for two months in analyzing, developing, prioritizing the things in our budget. Then we get in. And we know, we spend six, sometimes eight weeks going through that with Jason and his staff, looking through the budget, talking about what we need. What we can do without. And detail analyzing that budget. Then it is published for the public to see. There is several weeks for the public to know what is out there. Then we have public hearings. The people can come in address things about the budget. Comment about the budget. So to suggest that there’s not an open, transparent process that let’s, one, evaluation happen with staff and then thus the public, I think its misleading. Ninety-one percent of this budget for Fiscal 23 that starts in July is personnel. Ninety-one percent. Anyone who wants to suggest or argue that we have too many teachers, we have too many counselors, we have too many paraprofessionals, we have too many school nurses, we have too many custodians cleaning our buildings, then I’m willing to listen to them. But 91 percent of your budgets attached to people’s salaries suggests that it is all in staffing. And I have not seen any suggestion or evidence that we have too many in our buildings as it is. You also have to suggest that all of these people are over paid. Well, I don’t feel that way either. I’ve spent hours over the years analyzing this budget. We’ve done HR personnel studies and on and on. I don’t think our folks are overpaid either. That’s where our budget is established. So I think we are being practical, we are being efficient. We are spending the money to do those things that is necessary to maintain and keep a high quality school system. So let me just end with this. We all know we have a great thing. Everybody wants to come here because of the school system. And it is a thing that is (inaudible). We had had a gentleman in our of our hearings the other night tell us he moved here from California. He was moving from California and moving for bunch of reasons. And he scoured the country for where he wanted to go. He picked Oconee County. I should have asked him why. I bet I know. My point, my end point is this. Our school system is the heart and soul of the community. It is the thing that we prosper from. And if an investment in our school system is not what we’re willing to spend, then we have a different set of values than what I come to this meeting with.”
“I’ve got a little something I want to say. I’m not going to repeat what Tim said although I agree 100 percent with what he said. I don’t want to be repetitive. But from my viewpoint the hours we put in on this budget. I think that it is a very responsible budget. A very efficient budget. The school worked very hard to establish that budget based on the expectations of a excellent school system. And something that is a major contributor to the excellence of this county. Somewhere along the way it seems like the civic duty lost its way. I dare say there is a lot of miscommunication out there. Math is math. The only way we can raise your taxes is to increase the millage rate. That’s a fact. Tim made a good point. I’m going to reiterate it because we hear the comments at the back. If you do the math, if your assessment is the same as last year, and some may be, you never know, if you do the math, if your assessment is the same as last year, you will have lower taxes as far as the school board part of your property tax. That’s a mathematical fact. If your assessment goes up, yea, your taxes will go up some. It is just the nature of that particular county. You live in a county that is very affluent, very high end type, with expensive type home county. That should be a good thing. Taxes go up if you have nice things. They’re going to be taxed high.”
“OK. With that being said, we did that work on that budget. The majority of that work was done before we got the tax digest. We based our budget on certain assumptions that we had to make. And I think we had a really solid budget at that point. I still think we need a healthy reserve. There are bond ratings that need to be maintained to keep an excellent school system in financial area. There are unexpected expenses that can occur. There are pandemics that can occur. They can occur that cause a schools system, no telling how much. I wish I could come up with a figure of the millions of dollars that were unexpected expenses just due to the pandemic. If we go borrow money, then you will have a millage increase on bond money. That’s a fact. I think it was three years ago we paid off-- four last, three or for years ag--we paid off our last bond, which is wholly dependent millage tax that the citizens of Oconee County has to pay for. In the past two recessions that was kind of the case that happened to the school system. I was here for one of them. And not only did we have to cut back but we had to borrow money. You don’t want to have to borrow money for the school system. It costs you way too much on the taxpayers that way. Again, I think there’s, I think you need to have a healthy reserve. We based the budget on the tax digest that we thought was going to happen. And fortunately for everybody who benefits from the tax increase, there was a healthy increase. That was after we established the original budget. And suggested the reduction of the millage rate by a quarter of a point. But that being said I’m going to ask my fellow Board members to consider a further reduction of the rate to 15.5 percent. And I can put that in a motion. I suggest we adopt a 15.5 percent millage rate to make a full mill reduction from last year’s millage rate, which is an historic low for this county.”