By LYDIA BERGLAR
The Dade County Board of Commissioners held its third public millage rate hearing on August 17 before voting to adopt a millage rate of 8.000. See last week’s issue of the Sentinel for an explanation of the rollback rate, unincorporated and incorporated rates, and recent decreases in the millage rate.
During the hearing, County Executive Ted Rumley reiterated, “About 90 percent of the [properties] we looked at, your actual final tax check will stay the same [as last year] or a lot of them went down just a little.”
Paula Duvall (tax assessor) said, “Since we do not go into the houses and people aren’t home most of the time, we don’t know what’s going on inside the house. There’s definitely issues we want brought to our attention…We’re required by law to visit every property once every three years…What we’re doing as mass appraisers is we’re valuing all of the houses in the county.”
Angie Galloway (tax commissioner) explained that she handles the collection side, not the assessment side. She addressed the Homeowner Tax Relief Grants (HTRG) from the state (further discussed at the previous hearings), saying, “The exemptions that are way up is due to the HTRG credit…It’s going to help a lot of people.”
Robert Goff (District 3 commissioner) reported that five years ago, exemptions totaled $75,715,887, but this year, they total $202,539,328. He said that exemptions are the fastest growing piece of the digest. He added, “They’re entitled to it, it’s not something that’s wrong.”
Phillip Hartline (District 2 commissioner) reiterated his desire to lower the millage rate, adding, “We’ve got $200,000 in our budget coming out of our general fund because we overshot how much we’re gonna collect. Our budget’s gone up a million dollars every year for the last three years…I know in the corporate world, if you give me a budget, I’m gonna spend every penny. These are the reasons I’m going to vote the way I am…The citizens of the county cannot keep affording this, in my opinion.”
Goff said, “When we look at the exemptions growing, part of [the cost] is going to come back to the people. Secondly, it’s the inflation. When we look at inflation over the last three years nationwide, it’s cost us more to have the services we have…I am comfortable with the eight mills.”
Melissa Bradford (District 4 commissioner) said, “It’s hard all over. I don’t think it’s just us…I am comfortable with the eight [mills]…I pay taxes just like everybody else. I have three kids in school, they drive cars, pay for gas, and buy groceries. It weighs on me to make these decisions that we make.”
Rumley said, “Phillip is a good man…He knows what he’s talking about.” He added that the financial strain will continue in coming years and the county will need to consider cutting services.
He then discussed the rising cost of homes due to people moving into the county, purchasing expensive homes, and driving demand up. “We can’t put a gate up; I wish we could put a gate up and control or draw a line and say, “If you’re from Oregon, California, whatever, you can’t give $500,000 for that $175,000 house and an acre of land…It’s really out of control.”
He continued, “I feel good this year keeping this at eight mills…What Phillip’s saying is correct, but without immediately cutting services–I’ve went through every department.”
Jumping back to the topic of home/property prices, Rumley said, “One day…it’s going to be hard for the average person that’s been here all their life to even afford to pay their taxes.”
To this, Hartline responded, “For me, it’s a two-part process, and right now, the only part I can control is what we’re fixin’ to do. The other part’s gonna have to be at the state level where they do not allow people that’s lived here, their houses to go up 25 and 30 percent in one year.”
Lamar Lowery (District 1 commissioner) countered, “If you have the home value freeze and your home value goes up $200,000 from last year, you’re paying last year’s values, not that $200,000, unless you do some kind of major improvement. I signed up ten years ago. Mines not went up.”
Regarding the budget and millage rate, Lamar said, “I’m not sure what the answers are…Like in 2008…we were cutting everything, we were furloughing employees, we were shutting the library down so many days a week. I think we’re headed that way again.”
All except Hartline voted in favor of an 8.000 millage rate.
Editor’s note: As many readers are already aware, funding the budget essentially lands on taxpayers in some form or another. In Townsend’s words, “The millage rate pays for about one-third of the budget. The other two-thirds come from federal and state grants, excise taxes that include Local Option Sales Tax (LOST), the insurance premium tax, and fees for specific services like electrical or tile permits.”
If no property owners signed up for exemptions, a low millage rate could be sufficient to fund the budget. However, taking advantage of exemptions can cause a higher millage rate. If voters vote against SPLOST, TSPLOST, etc., the county could either raise the millage rate to compensate for this lack of funding or cut back on services.
Additionally, the county could implement a lower millage rate but charge fees to fund services instead. For example, additional fees could be charged at the transfer station or a fee could be charged to use the sports complex.
Taxes collected by the state which are then redistributed also must be considered. For one such example, see the school board’s millage rate discussion about equalization funds in this edition of the Sentinel or consider insurance premium taxes which are redistributed based on census numbers.
Since Hartline was the only one to vote against the millage rate, the Sentinel reached out to him to hear his thoughts about where the budget could be stretched or what services or personnel could be cut. He has yet to respond.