Thursday, April 18, 2024

Oconee County Town Hall Meeting Starts With Explanation Of Items On May 21 Ballot But Quickly Turns To Discussion Of Library

***Supporters Of Library Dominate Meeting***

Oconee County Commission Chair John Daniell on Tuesday evening started yet another Town Hall Meeting with a review of the efforts he and fellow commissioners have made to increase the county’s homestead exemptions and expand property tax relief for seniors.

Those efforts will increase the size of the homestead exemption from $2,000 to $5,000 in 2025 and to $10,000 in 2035, add an additional $10,000 exemption for those 75 years old and older, and freeze property tax assessments automatically for those 65 years old and older.

Those changes are incorporated into 10 items on the May 21 ballot, and Daniell reminded those present at the meeting on Tuesday night that all must receive a vote of Yes if any of the changes is to take place.

When Daniell stopped his presentation, four citizens asked questions about the changes the ballot items will bring about, and then, once again, the topic turned to Oconee County’s two libraries, with particular focus on the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville.

This time, supporters of library came prepared and dominated the discussion, in contrast to January’s Town Hall Meeting, when critics were out in force.

Susanna Drennen was the first to discus the Library, and she stayed at the microphone for a little more than 11 minutes with a presentation that mixed sarcasm and humor and produced loud applause in response.

She was followed by five other speakers, but none of them criticized the Library.

Commissioners, in their responses, showed they are growing tired of the continued back and forth about the library, and Commissioner Chuck Horton said his message for everyone is that they are overestimating the role of the Commission.

First Speakers

Daniell has been using the Town Hall meetings to discuss the changes in the homestead exemptions and automatic freeze of property tax assessments for those 65 years of age and older going back to March of last year.

Thompson, Horton, Daniell 4/16/2024

Daniell on Tuesday gave a shortened version of the presentation he gave in January and directed people to the county’s web site, which contains explanations of each of the 10 items on the ballot and why each must be passed as well as a summary of what the changes mean for a model home owner.

George Rodrigues was the first citizen to come forward in the Commission Chamber at the Administrative Building with a comment, and he said he thinks the bigger problem the county should address is assessments.

Stephen Aleshire, who is running for the Republican Party nomination for Post 5 on the Board of Education on that same May 21 ballot, was the next speaker, and he asked why the issue was on the ballot in a primary election and not in November. About 40 people attended the meeting.

Daniell didn’t answer the question at that point, though he acknowledged it could be put on the ballot again if it were defeated in May.

Rachel Hollifield asked “what income are we going to use to replace the budget money” lost as a result of the increased exemptions and property tax freeze.

“What are the schools going to be taking from in order to maintain their budgets and not having to cut their programs?” she asked.

Daniell said “we do have natural growth in our (tax) digest every year, so real growth” as well as sales tax income will provide the needed revenue. “Sales tax numbers continue to increase,” he said.

Next Speaker And Candidate

Suzannah Heimel, who is running as a Democrat (without Party support) to challenge Post 1 Commissioner Mark Thomas in November, said she wanted to follow on Hollifield’s question about loss of revenue from the changes proposed.

Heimel Before Commission 4/16/2024

“I feel like I need more information on that,” she said. “I filed an open records. I also emailed you asking anticipated sales revenue for the next five years 10 years, 20 years. You couldn't tell me. They didn't provide anything in open records. They said that they didn't have anything, any of those numbers.”

Heimel said she had also asked for “total number of households, which qualify for the proposed exemption starting in 2025, broken down going through 2045" as well as for other similar data related to the exemptions.

“It seems like this legislation is based on I don’t know what,” she continued. “You're not providing any numbers. All you're saying is, you know, sales tax increases. I mean it's not just the county that's taking from sales tax. You know Board of Education is taking from sales tax too. So what kind of a pot are we looking at?”

Heimel said she also wanted to know “why is this on a May primary ballot not on a general election in November?”

“We chose the May Primary because typically we do have good turnout,” Daniell said. He said the changes will affect the work of the Tax Commissioner and the Property Appraisal Office, so time is needed to implement the changes to go into place in January of 2025.

The changes are “lifting the tax burden off the seniors,” Daniell said. “If you don't think they need a tax break, then you're welcome to vote No for it.”

“What your open records request asked for was sales tax projections to 2045,” Daniell said. “All the financial statements are out there. If you want to go out there and try to extrapolate to 2045, go ahead.”

“I told you I didn’t extrapolate to 2045 for sales tax,” Daniell said. “No ma’am. I did not do that.”

Commissioner Amrey Harden said, for his part, if “people have spoken, they don’t want to reduce their property taxes, we hear you, so that’s it. So don’t go looking for me to whip that things back out there the next election.”

Now The Library

When Daniell invited those with questions on topics other than the ballot items, Susanna Drennen stepped forward, saying “I’m a little nervous about this.”

Drennen 4/16/2024

“I am a mom to two 13-year-old twins and I want to discuss some library issues,” she said. “I can’t quite believe that I am still hearing about this and feeling the need to discuss it.”

“It seems that the attacks on the library, the librarians, and some of the reading materials could possibly be a means to an end,” she said. “It seems to me that by constantly protesting, nitpicking, complaining, cajoling, and haranguing y'all...there's a minority that thinks they are attacking the weakest part of a defensive wall.”

“If you attack libraries and a few select books, and couch those attacks as defensible on account of those books being inappropriate to children,” she said, “then you are plucking at emotional threads that could stir up sympathy.”

“If you can get those books reshelved or removed,” Drennen said, “then you can move on to the next issue--parent advisory committees as a way to ban books that don't sit well with your world view.”

“How is it fair to deny our children and adolescents, who are weathering the turbulence of growing up,” Drennen asked, “access to materials that might help them understand who they are and what they are going through?”

“Pulling or reclassifying items that have been deemed appropriate by the trained professionals...because a small group of parents is bullying them into doing so, means that my kid’s freedom is being restricted,” Drennen said.

“The simple solution to this is that if you don't want your children to access certain materials,” she said, “then you should have a discussion with them about what is appropriate and what is not.”

Next To The Microphone

Kurt Dahlstrom told the Board that “I’m raising two kids and we make very heavy use of the Library.”

Dahlstrom 4/16/2024

“I don't understand the scenario where young children are seeing any library books without their parents involvement,” Dahlstrom said.

“If the concern is the child might notice a book containing LGBT themes or similar, and the parent is worried they're going to have to explain that gay people exist, well yep, that's your job,” he said.

“So to me, potentially turning over book classification decisions to a citizen board is a solution in search of a problem,” he said. At the January Town Hall meeting, one of the speakers suggested appointment of just such a Board.

“While I do believe in providing information in an age appropriate manner,” Dahlstrom said. “I think there is a major overcorrection going on that is harming our children rather than protecting them.”

“I think you might be giving us credit for more power than we have,” Commissioner Chuck Horton said when Dahlstrom finished. “We make a donation to the Library. We don’t run the library system.”

“We don’t get in the weeds at the library,” Horton said. “We don’t go buy the books. We don’t judge the books...The employees don’t work for us.”

Horton said there are no plans to create a citizen advisory board, to “take the money away from the library,” or “go create a new library. We don’t even have a place to put it.”

“To be quite honest with you,” Horton said, “We were doing fine before the topic came to us...We’ve been dealing with this for weeks and weeks and weeks..I mean we’re beating this like a dead horse.”

Final Three Speakers

Wanda Stitt-Gohdes said “I think that our library staff should be applauded for the work that they do in not only in maintaining the library services that they provide, but also in making the transition--what was a very difficult transition--from the old library to the new library in Wire Park.

Cruz 4/16/2024

Victoria Cruz said “I am happy to get us off this subject, very happy. What you’ve witnessed is the division that exists in society today. If you weren’t aware that it was a division, now you are.”

Cruz said she didn’t think enough people had been involved in the update of the Comprehensive in 2023 and that she was uncomfortable with the population estimates in the Plan.

She said she was concerned that fertility rates in the state are low and that the population will not grow as projected. She next turned to immigrant, and said that “Illegal immigration is a stress on social services.”

She also is concerned about noncitizens voting, she said. “I don't think I'm being hyperbolic to say that this election will be very important to determine the future of our country, so I just wanted to let you know what keeps me up at night.”

Cruz is running in the Republican Primary on May 21 for Post 4 on the Board of Commissioners against incumbent Post 4 Commissioner Mark Saxon.

Harold Thompson, chair of the Oconee County Democratic Party, followed Cruz, and he offered “just a thought about encouraging more people to vote or getting more people to vote...Make it easier for people to vote.” He said using mail-in ballots at present is very difficult.

Cruz returned to the microphone to say that the problem with mail-in ballots is the unreliability of the Post Office.


The video below is on the county’s YouTube Channel.

The meeting begins at 5:44 in the video.

Rodrigues speaks at18:47.

Aleshire speaks at 20:58.

Hollifield came to the microphone at 22:43.

Heimel began her comments at 23:48.

Drennen started speaking at 36:43.

Dahlstrom began speaking at 48:22.

Stitt-Gohdes is at the microphone at 1:00:10 in the video.

Cruz spoke the first time at 1:01:35.

Thompson made his comments 1:16:30.

Cruz returned to speak at 1:17:16.

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