Upson County Commissioners Thursday night unanimously approved a two mill property tax increase, but not without strenuous objections from a local business leader.
Southern Mills Plant Ray Manager Mike Anderson told commissioners he cannot see why an increase in property taxes is justified.
Anderson said he spent long hours researching the county's financial situation on the Georgia Department of Revenue's web site and urged commissioners to think long and hard before increasing the property tax rate to 15.43 mills.
Commissioners have said the tax increase is necessary to overcome what will be a $400,000 budget overrun in the sheriff's department due to relocation of jail operations. Commissioners also note that reserves were spent over the past three years in an effort to hold down property taxes.
At the same time, the county government spent more money on attempts to attract new jobs into the community - through the purchase of industrial park property, construction of a speculative building and expansion of the airport.
Armed with a myriad of charts, facts and figures, Anderson said county revenues have increased 27.6 percent from 1998 to 2002. He said factoring in the two mill increase would represent a 47.17 percent increase since 1998.
"The cost of living hasn't increased near that amount," he said. "Upson County will be the 18th highest taxed county in the state," Anderson said. "This represents a 39.6 percent increase per person since 1998 and frankly, I don't see anything that justifies this type of increase."
Commissioner Frank Spraggins said aside from a small tax increase approved last year, county officials have not raised taxes in the last five years. He agreed that overall revenues may have risen, but was quick to say it was not because of tax hikes.
Spraggins also said while commissioners must vote on the tax issue, they really don't control spending in the county. He said commissioners have no control over budgets of most departments.
"Upson County is not living within their means," Anderson said. "Money is being spent that doesn't need to be spent and the county is providing services they can't afford. Where are these increases going?"
Anderson said since 1998, residential values are up 71 percent while commercial property values are up 105.43 percent while industrial values have seen a 30.9 percent rise in the same time period.
"I'm not here to blame anything on anybody, but I'm not sure what the county is providing back for these dollars" he said, "but this affects every citizen of Upson County," Anderson said.
Commissioners were quick to defend their decision to raise property taxes, asserting they had no other choice.
"The fact is that the county was set back by the loss of Thomaston Mills," Chairman Maurice Raines said. "West Georgia Generating has filed for bankruptcy ... This Board of Commissioners has acted as a team," Raines said. As for future spending, he added, "This commission is dedicated to saying no and meaning it."
Anderson said he was pleased to hear department heads were asked to cut expenses, but said he also heard many of the county's leaders ignored that plea.
"We did ask for cuts from the department heads," Raines said. "Some were able to cut expenses and some weren't."
County Manager Mark Bryant said had the commissioners not voted to raise taxes, the county's budget would be roughly $1 million short.
"We looked at the departments and were able to make $250,000 in cuts," he said, but unfortunately, those savings will be offset by a $450,000 increase in running the jail and courts.
"The only alternative I have not proposed is layoffs," he said. "In order to generate the saving we needed, layoffs would have been substantial," Bryant said. "Most of our employees are not highly paid so layoffs would have been deep and serious and would have affected services."
Commissioner Steve Hudson said the decision to raise taxes was not easy. He said the increase would mean he and others would have to pay more, but told colleagues he was most concerned about senior citizens on fixed incomes."
Commissioner Sandra Trice echoed Hudson's sentiments.
"Raising taxes was a very difficult thing to do," she said. "Finding things to cut is difficult and raising taxes is difficult," she said. "We have tried to spend the citizens' money wisely, but the truth is there are some areas we have no control of."