Only four persons spoke on Monday at the first two public hearings on the proposed 9.53 percent increase in property taxes for Oconee County Schools.
All four asked the Board to reduce the millage rate below the proposed 15.0 mills.
The two who spoke on Monday evening also were strongly critical of the Board for embargoing the legal advertisements announcing the increase in the county’s legal organ, The Oconee Enterprise.
The Board changed the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget before the first of the hearings on Monday morning, creating confusion for those who showed up to speak about the tax increase.
The difference between the budget approved by the Board at its June 5 meeting and the budget presented on Monday morning was that the former drew from the school system’s $34.8 million reserve to balance the budget while the new budget uses increased revenue from the tax increase to accomplish that goal.
No one explained the changes in the budget at either of the hearings, and those who spoke said the Board was obtaining more money from the proposed 15.0 millage rate than it needs.
“You don’t need a millage rate higher than what’s required to meet your revenue topline,” Robert Fincher said at the 9 a.m. Monday hearing.
The final hearing is set for 5:30 p.m. on July 31 and will be followed by a meeting of the Board at which it will set the millage rate.
Board Vice Chair Amy Parrish chaired both hearings in the absence of Board Chair Kim Argo, and Parrish in both cases immediately invited Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow to the podium to explain “the purpose of the meeting.”
|Burgess Questioning Harlow|
Harlow said at the morning meeting that the Board tentatively had adopted a millage rate of 15.5 mills, but “with the release of the final tax digest Oconee County Schools recommends a millage of 15 mills, which is a decrease of 0.5 mills from last year’s millage rate.”
“The law requires the millage rate be advertised as a property tax increase as a result of the assessed value of the property in our county being greater than it was a year ago,” she continued.
To avoid a tax increase, the Board would have to set a millage rate of not more than 13.695 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,” Harlow said.
“An updated budget that reflects anticipated revenue based on the final tax digest and recommended millage rate of 15 mills is shown for your reference,” she said, referring to the screen at the front of the room.
Harlow’s comments at the evening session were similar.
At the morning session, the budget was shown only on the screen, and no copies were distributed. At the evening session, copies of the revised budget were available at the door of the meeting room.
“Let me ask you a question to make sure I understand where we are now, given this new budget you have just shown us,” Burgess said as soon as Harlow ended her comments at the morning session.
“This budget, with the proposed millage of 15.0, collects exactly, almost exactly, what we need to balance this budget. Correct?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” Harlow responded
“It doesn’t require, it doesn’t deficit, it doesn’t create an imbalance, it doesn’t deficit finance, it doesn’t dip into reserves to balance the budget. But it doesn’t collect more than we need to balance this current budget for 24, within a few thousand dollars?” he asked.
“That is correct,” Harlow responded.
Burgess asked Harlow slight revisions of these questions at the evening session, but neither Harlow nor Burgess explained the difference in the two budgets at either hearing.
The Fiscal Year 2024 budget approved by the Board showed revenue of $45,923,648 with a millage rate of 15.5, and the revised budget presented by Harlow with a millage rate of 15.0 shows revenue of $47,987,662.
The budget approved by the Board in June was balanced by taking $2,118,737 from the $34.8 million in reserves held by the Board, while the budget used for the tax hearings was balanced without taking money from those reserves.
Director of Communications Steven Colquitt came to the podium after Harlow’s presentation in both meetings and said that two citizens had signed up to speak, and each would be allowed three minutes to make comments.
|Ledenham, Fincher (Back To Camera), Burgess, Parrish|
“Generally there will be no response to comments or questions posed by citizens at the meeting,” he advised.
Fincher said at the morning meeting that the article in last week’s edition of Enterprise “made it appear like, one, you were trying to avoid public input by putting an embargo on the ad, and, secondly, the information that was provided in the paper, I thought I was clear on, but with what Mr. Burgess said, I’m not real sure.”
The article (which is based on a post on this blog I wrote) pointed out that a millage rate of 14.354 would generate the $45,923,648 shown as revenue from county property and ad valorem taxes in the budget approved by the Board.
“These are difficult times for everybody,” Fincher said.
“I believe the age of more is over,” he said. “You cannot continue to expect the citizens of the county to agree to increases in school taxes year over year.”
Albert Ledenham had signed up to speak next, but he told the Board “I think Mr. Fincher has covered anything I would, my issues.”
Three other people had come into the room, but they were not invited to speak.
Both Fincher and Ledenham asked for an itemized budgets for this and earlier years, and Burgess and Board Member Michael Ransom said they were on the Oconee County Schools web site.
The Budget page for Business Services contains only the budget outline and as of this writing does not include the budget Harlow presented to the Board on Monday.
After the meeting ended, Fincher and Ledenham moved to the back of the room and soon were joined by Burgess and Parrish.
Fincher told Burgess he was inclined to believe the reports he had read in the Enterprise.
Burgess said the paper “is misrepresenting the basis. They’re presenting you with one argument, but it is not the argument that I just made, which is, this budget, with everything that’s in it, requires 15 mills to balance.”
“What they want you to hear is, for no tax increase, there is a certain mill that is required, to have no tax increase,” he said. (That rate is 13.695.)
“And that’s one argument,” he continued. “My point was, if there’s nothing wrong with this budget that we’re passing, the 15 mills is what’s required. And that’s a decrease from last year. That’s the other thing that you’re not hearing.”
First Evening Speakers
John Webb was the first of the evening speakers, and he said he was confused by Burgess’ comments.
|Webb Addresses Board |
He said the story in the Enterprise had reported that the millage rate of 15.0 would produce $2,064,015 more than was listed in the budget approved by the Board.
The difference between the estimate of revenue generated by 15 mills in the revised budget presented by Harlow and amount listed in the original budget is $2,064,014, a rounding difference.
“So either the paper’s right, or this person (Burgess) is right,” Webb said.
Burgess had said that the $47,987,662 shown in the revised budget was needed. What he didn’t say was that the amount was needed because the Board wants to cover the deficit in the original budget of $2,118,737 with the tax revenue rather than from the budget surplus.
Webb said he wanted to reduce the millage rate to 14.354, which would produce the $45,923,648 in the original budget.
“I’m very surprised, and very shocked that you would embargo for the notice to the paper, and embargo, so they could not respond,” he added. “That’s irresponsible on your part. I don’t understand why you would do that.”
Enterprise Editor Michael Prochaska said the paper received the legal advertisements in the July 13 paper on the afternoon of July 7 with the requirement that it be embargoed and not shared with the paper’s editorial staff prior to publication.
Second Evening Speaker
Carol Nimmons, following Webb, said “Here we are again, objecting to a high tax increase.”
“It apparently was just a temporary appeasement the last time,” she said, referring to the decision of the Board, after citizens complained, to reduce the millage rate last year by 1 mill.
“You are supposed to practice good stewardship with the money that comes in, yours and mine,” she said.
“Embargo!” she said. “Who made this decision for this School Board? Certainly without transparency.”
“Spend conservatively, and spare us,” she said.
Three other people, including Fincher, who had spoken in the morning, were in the room on Monday evening but had not signed up to speak.
Colquitt offered each a chance to speak, however, and none did.
The Budget presented by Harlow on Monday morning differs from the Budget the Board adopted in June in two ways that increase the revenue.
First, the increase in the tax digest resulted in the addition of $2,064,014 in property and ad valorem taxes.
Second, the decision by the Board of Commissioners to reduce the fee it charges Oconee County School for collecting taxes from 2.5 percent to 2 percent produced an additional $188,338 in revenue.
Total revenue increased from $103,851,443 to $106,103,795, or an increase of nearly $2.3 million.
The $106,103,795 exceeded expenses of $105,970,180 by $133,615.
That amount, coupled with the decision not to draw $2,118,737 from reserves, as originally planned, resulted in an increase in reserves by $2,254,352 over the original budget.
The Board has had no discussion in public about the budget Harlow presented at the first meeting on Monday, but there is no evidence it was a surprise to any of them.
Burgess alone asked questions of Harlow, but it was clear he knew the answers before he asked his questions.
No one at the meeting discussed the decision to change the budget to add nearly $2.3 million to the surplus over what the Board approved in June.
The first video below is from the 9 a.m. hearing on Monday, and the second is from the 6 p.m. hearing. Both were held at the Board Conference room in the administrative building at 34 School Street in Watkinsville.
Harlow made her presentation to the Board at 0:11 in the video of the morning session.
Burgess asked his questions at 2:08 in that meeting.
Fincher began his comments at 4:10 in the video.
The conversation between Burgess and Fincher after the meeting begins at 8:02 in the video.
The conversation was very close to where I was seated, and Burgess, but not Fincher, objected to my recording that exchange.
Harlow came to the podium for the evening meeting at 0:13 in the second video.
Burgess asked Harlow about the budget at 5:54.
John Webb came to the podium at 9:09 in the evening video.
Nimmons came to the podium at 12:26.