CONYERS — Questions remain after two public hearings on the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners proposed 2020 millage rate. Not only is the public concerned about an increase in their property taxes, but in light of the economic hardships the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on everyone, Commissioners Sherri Washington and Dr. Doreen Williams questioned what the impact would be if the county used its reserve funds to balance the budget rather than increase property taxes.
The proposed millage rate of 18.70 is actually less than the 2019 millage rate of 20.17. However, it is higher than the rollback rate of 18.016 mills, which would provide the same amount of property tax revenue as received last year. With the 18.70 rate, property taxes would increase by 4.91%.
The county held two of three required hearings on July 28 at 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Finance Director Roselyn Miller gave a presentation on the 2020 budget and the need for the millage rate increase.
Last December the 2020 budget was set at $74,912,728, a 9% increase over the 2019 budget of $68,720,084. Property tax revenue makes up 66% of the budget and Miller said when they develop the budget, they have to anticipate how much tax revenue will be received since the budget is finalized before the millage rate is set.
Rockdale is one of two counties in the state which uses a Homestead Option Sales Tax (HOST). The county charges a 1% HOST sales tax and uses the revenue from it to reduce the amount of property taxes paid by residents.
In 2019 the HOST was 70%, which meant tax payers only paid 30% of their total property tax and the rest was covered by HOST. Miller said this year the tax digest in the county has increased by 12%, but that the sales tax rate is not increasing by the same amount, and she is recommending a 60% HOST rate.
George Kelechek was the only citizen to comment on the budget during the morning hearing. Kelechek noted he had presented the BOC with a proposal for saving the county $750,000 by paring the county’s fleet of F150 pickup trucks in half, and using smaller and more economical SUVs in their place.
At the second hearing, commissioners Washington and Williams expressed concern about the economic hardships citizens are facing and questioned what the impact would be to the county if the millage rate was kept at the rollback rate of 18.016 mills.
Washington noted that the county currently has $30 million in its reserve fund and asked how much of it would be needed if the BOC approved the rollback rate.
Miller stated the county would need to go into reserves for about $3 million if the rollback rate was approved. She added that the most the county has had to go into reserves before was $1.6 million and that it has been over five years since that happened.
Williams expressed concern about residents who rent homes and apartments, stating that those properties don’t have the benefit of the HOST and any increase in their value translates to an increase to the renters.
Williams added that the dilemma is raising taxes or decreasing the fund balance, which could have a negative effect on the county’s financial rating.
Washington said her thoughts on the fund balance is it needs to be used during a time of crisis, and she felt this was such a time.
“The community as a whole is going through a lot right now,” she said. “People are still unemployed. Even if they are renters or were just making their mortgage, any amount of tax increase at this time would be detrimental to the people of Rockdale County. I’m a firm believer that savings are just for these times when the entire world is experiencing an economic downturn. If there is anyway that we can do something to alleviate a problem for the vast majority of our constituents, this time going into fund balance might be necessary.”
Williams said her feelings were similar to Washington’s, but she wanted a projection of what could happen “down the rood, because we know we can’t go into fund balance every year. If it is a one time thing, it is an investment in our people, but we need to know what the consequences of that are the next year and the next year and the next.”
Four residents spoke during public comment.
Steven and Andrea McMullin said with the pandemic going on, that a lot of people are already struggling, and they asked for the county to help the citizens out this year by not increasing the tax millage.
Larry Cox suggested the county adopt the rollback rate and use reserve funds this year, and also suggested they look at taking the county’s portion of the amount of taxes not covered by HOST and use it to reduce property taxes.
Helena Kelly said her property assessment went up greatly and asked the BOC to think of the residents this year.
The final public hearing will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 11, at 9:30 a.m. in the county auditorium at 903 Main Street in Conyers. The BOC will meet immediately following the hearing at 10 a.m. in the auditorium to set the millage rate.