Mill levy hike in voters' hands

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Kurt Schlegel didn't mince words during a special meeting of the Elbert County commissioners, held earlier this month to approve language for a proposed mill levy tax hike.

“This is very serious,” the District 2 commissioner said in reference to the county's financial condition. “We're circling the drain.”

But at that Sept. 4 meeting, District 3 Commissioner Larry Ross offered a less alarming perspective, saying Schlegel was “overdramatizing.”

“I take offense with the `circling the drain' reference,” Ross added.

The prickly exchange between commissioners came during a debate on ballot-question language for a proposed property tax mill levy increase that could raise county residents' taxes by as much as four mills.

Tax increases of any kind tend to be a hot-button issue in Elbert County.

But with Schlegel and Board Chair Robert Rowland, who represents District 1, ultimately supporting the proposed ballot language, the measure passed 2-1 with Ross in the minority,and the tax hike question will appear on the November 5 ballot.

The tax increase is being proposed to shore up the county's anemic General Fund, a state of affairs current Board of County Commissioners members attribute, at least in part, to financial mismanagement by previous administrations.

Between 2006 and 2009, county operating expenses exceeded revenues by nearly $4.5 million, forcing commissioners to institute a number of cost-cutting measures including layoffs, pay cuts and the reduction of the work week for county employees from 40 to 36 hours.

The county's financial health — or lack thereof — has been impacted by construction of a new courthouse and jail facility, which was completed in 2008 and 100 percent financed by county residents.

Construction of the new Justice Center, which houses district and county courts as well as the sheriff's office, was necessitated by serious, ongoing issues with mold contamination in the old courthouse facility.

But unfortunately for Elbert County, the completion of the new Justice Center coincided with the financial crisis in 2008 that saw stocks crash and real estate values crumble.

Since the Justice Center opened, says County Treasurer Rick Pettitt, county property “valuations and the amount of taxes being collected have decreased but the amount of debt (incurred by construction of the facility) has remained the same.”

According to a report discussed at the special meeting, the county currently is facing an estimated $194,000 shortfall in anticipated 2013 General Fund revenues.

Adding insult to injury, county officials must also figure out a way to pay for $291,000 in projected new — and yet unbudgeted — expenses that will come due in 2014. Those additional outlays are related, in part, to shoring up the county's decaying or outdated infrastructure and hiring sorely needed additional employees.

At the special meeting, Rowland pointed out the county currently has just $20,000 in emergency reserve funds. “That money could all be spent in a bad 20 minutes,” Rowland said, noting that the cost of a single water drop from an air tanker fighting a wildfire is $2,000.

Both Rowland and Schlegel warned that if voters do not approve the mill levy increase, significant and immediate cuts will have to be made in county services, including decreased funding of both public safety and road maintenance.

But Ross did not agree. “The sky is not falling,” he said, pointing out at the meeting that Elbert County's declining residential property values are being offset to some degree by increasing agricultural land values.

Schlegel did not attend the Sept. 11 commissioners' meeting. Ross, who has been in office less than a year, declined to comment further on the proposed mill levy increase or specific issues related to county finances, explaining that he needed to go through “the entire budgeting process” for the upcoming year before he would “feel comfortable talking specifics.”

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