CHIPLEY — The Washington County Board of County Commissioners put off deciding a county millage rate when pressed to make a decision on Thursday by County Clerk of Court and Comptroller Linda Cook.
Cook asked the commissioners to set a millage rate for the county board’s meeting in Chipley. “We need a decision on the millage rate, we have got to have this turned in to the state by Aug. 4,” she said. “We need a decision today.”
“Or we could wait and call a special meeting next week,” Commission Chairman Alan Bush suggested.
“No,” Cook said. “Do it today.”
In the end, Cook did not get her request, and the commissioners decided to meet again on Monday to hash out the millage issue in a special workshop, then meet again on Wednesday to vote on the matter.
“We’re still out $92,000 from balancing the budget,” Cook said, and that started the discussion of how the county can make up the budget shortfalls that are predicted for the next fiscal year.
Bush said the county’s ad valorem tax base is predicted to be down about $228,000, and county property values have decreased. “Altogether we’re about $400,000 down in our revenues this year.”
Eliminating county employees is one thing the county can do to free up money for the budget, Bush said, and several positions are being considered for chopping, including that of a county manager and a human resources director.
“We don’t want to send the employees into a panic, and nothing has been decided,” Bush said. “We’re just looking at every possibility.”
The county is also facing “unfunded mandates,” Bush said, including increases in employee health care premiums and an additional $227,000 the county will be required to pay into the county employee retirement pension. “There’s no fluff left in this budget.”
The one possibility the county commissioners weren’t willing to look at, however, was the recommendation by Cook that they increase the millage rate to 9.23 from the current 8.91.
Commissioner Todd Abbott said that he would not support raising taxes. He said the county should change the homestead tax exemption so that it applies to not the first $25,000 of property value, but to the second $25,000. “Right now, about 30 percent of the county residents pay 80 percent of the property taxes,” Abbott said.
County Attorney Jeff Goodman said that if the commissioners desired, he could research the matter and bring the information back to the board in August.
However, that would not help Cook have a millage rate by Aug. 4.
“Surely one of you have an suggestion?” Cook asked the commissioners. “All we’re looking for is a little direction.”
“I want to look at every option before raising taxes,” Abbott said.
Commissioner Charles Brock noted that the county millage was 10 mills and more throughout the 1990s. Laying off county personnel would mean cutting services for the county residents, Brock said. “You can’t cut out half the county staff and not cut services.”
“Sometimes you have to have a little backbone,” Brock said.
“I pay as much taxes in this county as I want to pay,” Commissioner Joel Pate said. He said that the county should have been putting away money back when the gas pipeline first came through and the county routinely had $2 million budget surpluses. “We also need to have a strategic plan, this county has no plan in place.”
Abbott said that if he ran his company the way the commissioners ran the county, his company would be bankrupt. He also said the county wastes a lot of money in grading and filling dirt roads. “We put dirt and sand on these dirt roads, grade them off, then they wash away, year after year. One of our biggest expenses is putting out dirt.”
“I think we are all struggling to do more with less,” said Commissioner Lynn Gothard. “I don’t think the county is any different. And as a new commissioner, I am not convinced the county is run in the most efficient way possible.”
Gothard said the commissioners were facing a difficult decision. “I wish we could have had more budget meetings to discuss this.”
The commissioners split 3-2 on Cook’s proposed millage rate, with Brock and Bush voting for the 9.23 rate and Pate, Abbott and Gothard voting against the millage rate.
The commissioners agreed to meet Monday at 9 a.m. to hold a workshop to further discusss the issue.