- To see how your tax bill might be affected and what other taxes may affect Liberty County residents, scroll below the story for a breakdown.
The Walthourville City Council voted at its Oct. 24 meeting to hold two sets of public hearings: one on whether to impose a property tax millage rate, another on the city’s budget. However, those controversial hearings will not begin until after the Nov. 7 election.
WALTHOURVILLE BUDGET PROPERTY TAX PUBLIC HEARINGS
Millage rate hearings at Walthourville Fire Department, 264 Busbee Road
- 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9
- 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16
- 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30.
- 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 13
- 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 4
Citizens do not need to sign up in advance to take part in these hearings, unlike regular council meetings.
In recent weeks, pressure has been mounting for the city of 3,800 to get the budget balanced by the end of the city’s fiscal year, as required by Georgia law. The tough decisions will be made by an outgoing or new mayor and council; all are on the Nov. 7 ballot, with only District 4 Councilwoman Luciria Luckey Lovette running unopposed.
Hearings on a proposed tax and a new budget will be held throughout November, and the final vote on whether to approve a revised 2023 budget will take place at the Dec. 12 council meeting — one year after the city council voted to approve the original unbalanced budget. At a meeting earlier this month, residents of the city, learned they may have to pay annual property taxes between three and six mils. A mil is 1/1000 of a dollar, or $1 on every $1,000 of assessed property value.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the council also voted to have a forensic audit done, which is all but impossible before Dec. 31, when the city’s fiscal year ends. The current problems stem from last year’s end when the council voted to pass a budget that was not balanced.
At the time, council member Bridgette Kelly said she objected to the city accountant’s recommendation to impose a fire fee that would have balanced the budget. Kelly said the public had not had enough notice, and that she would not vote to approve the 2023 budget unless the fire fee was taken out.
According to the minutes from the 2022 decision, the fire fee recommendation was removed from consideration and the council “would revisit the budget in 2023 to remove expenses from the Fire Fee Revenue that is being removed. This will result in the City’s 2023 Budget being unbalanced and non-complaint [sic] with Georgia Law that each city must have a balanced budget to begin the year.” Mayor Pro Tem Sarah B. Hayes made the motion to pass the unbalanced budget, which Councilman Hendry seconded and the council voted 4-0 to pass it; although Lovette abstained, under state law, an abstention counts as a “yes,” so the final vote was a unanimous 5-0.
Since then, the city has been operating out of compliance with state law, and has yet to find new revenue sources.
Council member Lovette has been a vocal opponent of taking any action to impose a property tax or fire fee. She has said that the citizens deserve a chance to be heard first. Up until Tuesday night, Lovette and other council members had steadfastly refused to entertain a vote on the necessary public notices that would make such public hearings possible.
City Attorney Luke Moses and Mayor Pro Tem Sarah B. Hayes repeatedly reframed possible motions to place those public notices in the legal organ, which is how governments inform the public of important hearings.
“You’re not voting to levy a property tax by just voting to advertise whether or not we should levy a property tax, impose a millage rate,” Moses explained. “That’s all we will be voting on tonight. Whether or not to advertise to consider imposing a millage.”
Lovette called for a forensic audit of the city’s finances.
“I’m not asking for an audit because I think there’s deceit somewhere,” Lovett said. “I just don’t feel comfortable with an accountant who don’t come and talk to us about our budget. And so, how can I trust someone who never comes to talk to us? My recommendation is that we do a forensic audit to find out where the monies are going.”
Moses pointed out that a forensic audit would likely take a long time, much longer than the time remaining before Dec. 31.
Meanwhile, Moses said, the city will need to take out a loan to keep operations afloat until the city passes a property tax and/or fire fee and/or finds other ways to bring money into the city coffers.
Hayes asked, “If we do this loan, is that going to be enough to take us through so we don’t have to consider property taxes and we can do [a forensic audit] as Councilwoman Lovett suggested. And I totally agree on is getting an assessment of where we stand, what’s going on….is that gonna see us through so we can do give us time to do the assessment and get back on track?”
Moses said the city’s accountant was the best person to answer that question, and that he was not present due to a “legitimate family emergency,” which drew grumbles from the council and crowd. Several council members have complained that Caines has rarely attended meetings.
“He also promised that if he could not come, he would send a representative from his agency,” Lovette said.
“My understanding, based on my conversation with [Caines], is that we need a loan to bridge the gap between the recommendation he gave us, you know, on the budget that the city council passed, and the revenue that he recommended at the time that should be implemented to fund that budget, which was a fire fee that was never implemented, I mean, he advised that at the time,” Moses said. “But now we’re in this position, because that fire fee wasn’t implemented. And my understanding is this loan would be a bridge. And we would still need the fire fee and would still need a property tax in order to pay back that loan and continue to fund the city. Now. Now. It would be better for him to speak to that issue. Not me, but that’s my understanding of our conference.”
Hayes, who is running for mayor, said she would not oppose a loan if it bought the city time to find a way to avoid imposing a property tax on residents.
“And I think that we should at least have the paperwork prepared, if we have the necessity to do so, meaning that we won’t have to look at it later on, and take up more time to do that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking into a loan, not approving a loan right now, but looking into a loan, and what it would take and what it will cost for us to pay it back.”
“I’m gonna bring the corn down where the cows can eat it,” Moses told the council at one point. “I’m gonna say it like this right now. The accountant said that we needed this funding to fund a budget. Y’all passed the budget, y’all didn’t implement the funding mechanism that he wanted to fund the budget, and now — it’s not all of a sudden! That happened in January.”
Walthourville’s small 20-chair meeting room, with 16 of those seats reserved for the public, was packed with challengers for various council seats and residents who made their displeasure known. Throughout the meeting, citizens grumbled, laughed, and interjected their opinions into the council’s discussion. Both citizens and council members expressed outrage when Moses told them the accountant had revised his tax rate recommendation from 9 to 11 mils.
Shirley Thornton, an Army veteran and 29-year resident of Walthourville, was the only person to sign up in advance to get on the public comment agenda. Thornton said she became concerned after a meeting with the mayor where she was asked to leave after asking about potential taxes.
“My neighbor, right there, sent me this paperwork that said we are $700,000 in debt. How did that happen? How did that happen? Six people sitting up here. All of them are not bad and you already know that. But it’s six people. The attorney keeps saying and ignoring their question. They want this thing from the CPA and he keeps going back to (City Clerk Shana) Moss. And I love Ms. Moss. But they want the information from the CPA. Not Ms. Moss. How many times did you hear he kept going to Ms. Moss? Because he don’t want to give it to them. It is their responsibility to get it, and make sure that everybody, every citizen, in this town is taken care of. It’s their responsibility.
“These council members, they work for us…. Now y’all probably already voted, but guess what? You know all these homes that they’re fixing to tax? I’m a veteran. I don’t have to pay nothing. So they’ve gotta make it up from somewhere. Last week it was 9 mil. This week, he said 11. …Y’all gonna get taxed. And guess what happens when you can’t pay that extra money? The city’s gonna take that house.”
County sheriff’s office: ‘It won’t be dumped in our lap’
While Wathourville’s elected officials have a duty to the citizens, they also have agreements with other local governments and agencies.
Liberty County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Alfonzo Hagan, who served as Walthourville’s interim police chief in 2021 and was sworn in at LCSO last September, spoke to address a Memorandum of Understanding between the county sheriff’s office and the city. Hagan warned the mayor and council not to cut Walthourville’s police department budget, saying it would cost LCSO $964,000 per year to take on policing duties for the city.
“There was monies taken from the budget last year which did not allow the budget to balance and then there was a, I think, fire tax that was supposed to replace it,” Hagan said. “It did not happen. So what happened is, the first thing I heard was cutting the law enforcement and fire services. Well, when we went and looked at our structure of the sheriff’s office, we’re already operating at a minimum. We provide the city and Walthourville and other cities with some major services that cost us already, but yet relieve a burden on you all.”
Those services, Hagan said, include LCSO’s K-9 unit, drug unit, and detective bureau that investigates felonies committed in the city. According to Hagan, it would cost the city about $200 per hour for LCSO to take over police services.
“But I want to let you know, we as the Sheriff’s Department cannot take on that burden without the cost of the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] that we have in place,” Hagan said. “…If any cuts are made because we don’t want the citizens to suffer from some bad decisions by members…., and then think that, well, we just turn it over to Sheriff’s Department. I’ve heard that two or three times. It doesn’t work like that. When you’re a municipality, there are certain services you have to provide. And just like Flemington, Flemington paid for their police officers. We put those officers there.”
Hagan urged the council to seek grants and other ways of bringing in revenue to pay for policing. “When I got here, the police department was only part-time, which causes other issues, such as criminal history issues…. So with the work of Ms. Moss and the mayor, we got together and found monies, grants and you name it, to get us to full-time.”
“Bottom line, respectfully, is we can’t take on your burden in your making decisions in this city. We can’t do it. We won’t do it. What you all have to find out is, can you afford a police department?” Hagan said.
“You can’t keep buying, going in your bank account, never put nothing back, then expect to drop that in our lap and continue the services here. This city is in one of the best shape as far as law enforcement that has been in years. I lived in this area. There was killing, drugs, you name it. You don’t see a lot of that now. The officers here, they get out, they communicate with the citizens.”
Councilwoman Bridgette Kelly asked Hagan, “So what is our county taxes paid for? Because when we pay county taxes, we’re paying for public safety in our county taxes.”
He replied, “Well, when you have a municipality, you are responsible for law enforcement in that municipality. It’s like the city of Hinesville. We don’t work necessarily work there, we will assist them. And same thing we will do here, assist you. But if you want a dedicated police department, we can’t do it for free. That’s not budgeted in our budget.”
Later, Interim Fire Chief Nicolas Maxwell pointed out that the Walthourville Fire Department provides service for surrounding areas of Liberty County.
Just last week, the city held a push-in ceremony for its new pumper tanker, which Moss had helped to wrangle by trading in old firefighting equipment. Maxwell said the department had passed audits by the Georgia Fire Standards and Training Commission and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, noted the city’s spending moratorium, then asked for $1,000 for hoodies for firefighters to keep warm: “Since the uniform change from the previous administration, we do not have any outerwear in the fire department right now. So about $1,000 to get us over the hump just for this winter. We decided to go with hoodies because that was the request of the members of the fire department. It’s the cheapest option.”
Walthourville recently moved from a volunteer to a full-time professional fire department. The county fire department is a hybrid of full-time, part-time, and volunteer.
On June 1, 2021, the City of Walthourville and Liberty County signed an intergovernmental agreement for Walthourville “to provide fire protection and rescue services, assistance on medical calls, to include patient care, and public assistance as needed for the benefit of the residents of the unincorporated areas of the County” through midnight on June 20, 2022. In exchange, Liberty County agreed to pay Walthourville $16,000, in quarterly advance payments of $4,000.
Since June 1, 2022, however, the city has not had an agreement in place with the county, but has been providing fire and emergency services to unincorporated areas. As of the meeting, the city and county were still negotiating what the county would pay for Walthourville Fire’s services.
“Now through the diligent efforts of Ms. Moss, we were able to collect the fee that was owed for the previous year,” Maxwell said. “My recommendation is, when mayor and council considers the fire tax, if the fire tax passes, we receive compensation from the county based on the fire tax that would be imposed on the homes in unincorporated areas. …We responded to a call a few days ago at the four-way out towards Riceboro. That is a long way from Walthourville. We are still providing that service, but we do not have a contract that is going to guarantee us compensation for those services as of today.”
Maxwell urged the mayor and council to “get away from these lump-sum payments,” have the county tax assessor figure out the cost, and then pay Walthourville for unincorporated-area fire service based on that assessment.
Moses said the city was still negotiating the best possible deal.
Whether the city is seeking or providing services, the budget year ends on Dec. 31 and the council must act quickly to keep the city’s finances in the black.
“I don’t there’s anything to be hidden there,” Moses said. “I mean, everything that has been written out of the City of Walthourville’s checkbook is public record. I think we’ve talked about all of it. We’ve talked about the payment, y’all implemented a payment policy. I mean, we’ve talked about questions about that and concerns about that. And y’all passed a budget and most of the expenditures that had been made have been on salaries.”
You can watch the full meeting video on Walthourville’s Facebook page:
Walthourville: By the numbers
Here’s a look at the numbers the Georgia Municipal Association’s Pam Helton presented at the last council meeting. A city property tax alone would not raise enough revenue to stop the bleeding, but it is one of several actions that, combined, could save the city.
According to the “Consolidation and Evaluation of Digest” dated Sept. 19, Walthourville has 4,697 properties, of which 3,623 are residential on 1,176 acres. Property taxes are levied on 40% of the value of a property, so for tax purposes, that comes to $67,213,165 of taxable residential value.
At that time, Helton told the mayor and council that the city should consider a property tax rate of between 3 and 6 mils. Since then, according to Moses, the city’s accountant has recommended between 9 and 11 mils.
How much would the various proposed millage rates bring in?
Divide the citywide taxable assessed value of all properties (which is $78,761,596) by $1,000 (which is the increment for charging a millage rate), then multiply by one of the proposed millage rates to see the maximum amount the city could bring in if no one took any exemption (like a homestead or disability or veteran’s exemption). These numbers reflect the maximum possible tax revenue the city could get from homeowners, depending on the millage rate.
ALL RESIDENTIAL PROPERTIES IN WALTHOURVILLE EXCEPT MOBILE HOMES
(40% valuation totals $67,213,165 for all residential properties):
- 3 mils = $3 tax on every $1,000 of assessed value = .003 x $67,213,165 = $201,639.50 maximum possible revenue before homeowner exemptions
- 6 mils = $6 tax on every $1,000 of assessed value = .006 x $67,213,165 = $403,278.99 maximum possible revenue before homeowner exemptions
- 9 mils = $9 tax on every $1,000 of assessed value = .009 x $67,213,165 = $604,918.49 maximum possible revenue before homeowner exemptions
- 11 mils = $11 tax on every $1,000 of assessed value = .011 x $67,213,165 = $739,344.82 maximum possible revenue before homeowner exemptions
ALL PROPERTIES IN WALTHOURVILLE (EXCEPT TIMBER), INCLUDING VEHICLES, RESIDENTIAL, COMMERCIAL, INDUSTRIAL, AGRICULTURAL, UTILITY, MOBILE HOME, AND HEAVY EQUIPMENT
(40% valuation totals $78,761,596 for all properties except timber):
- 3 mils = $3 tax on every $1,000 of assessed value = .003 x $78,761,596 = $236,284.79 maximum revenue before any exemptions
- 6 mils = $6 tax on every $1,000 of assessed value = .006 x $78,761,596 = $472,569.58 maximum revenue before any exemptions
- 9 mils = $9 tax on every $1,000 of assessed value = .009 x $78,761,596 = $708,854,364 maximum revenue before any exemptions
- 11 mils = $11 tax on every $1,000 of assessed value = .011 x $78,761,596 = $866,377.57 maximum possible revenue before homeowner exemptions
According to the county’s digest, Walthourville property owners already pay county taxes totaling $1,076,638.27 and school taxes totaling $934,179.07. The county millage rate is 20.453, while the school millage rate is 15.25. The State of Georgia does not charge property tax. And not everyone actually pays: Many people apply for homestead and other tax exemptions.
To calculate the potential maximum tax rate on your own home:
2. Click the “Property Record Card (PDF)” link.
3. Under Values, find Total. Multiply that by .4 to get your 40% assessed value.
4. Multiply the 40% assessed value by the different proposed millage rates (.003, .006, .009, or any other number). You also can use a calculator like this one to make it easier: https://anytimeestimate.com/property-tax/property-tax-and-millage-calculator/
Be sure to apply for any exemption for which you qualify. Take the exemption that offers you the most savings, as these differ depending on your situation. If you live in your primary home, you can take a homestead exemption, even if you are not a senior, a veteran, or disabled.
To get a homestead exemption from Liberty County, you must own and live in your house as of Jan. 1, and you must apply between Jan. 1 and April 1. You only need to apply one time to get your homestead exemption. Contact the Liberty County Tax Commissioner’s Office for more information about your particular situation.
Liberty County property tax rates
In 2022, depending on where they lived, residents paid county, school, municipal, and local governing authority taxes for services, including the hospital and the “countywide industrial authority.”
In 2022, only the City of Hinesville levied a millage rate for property tax. That was 10.3 mils. Allenhurst, Flemington, Gum Branch, Midway, Riceboro, and Walthourville did not impose a millage rate, which is used to calculate property tax, for local services.
Hinesville property owners in incorporated Liberty County also paid property taxes based on 14.8 mils. Other incorporated areas of the county paid 17.4 mils.
Property owners in unincorporated Liberty County paid 17.4 mils, the same as non-Hinesville property owners in incorporated Liberty County.
All Liberty County property owners paid 3.843 mils for the hospital.
COUNTYWIDE INDUSTRIAL AUTHORITY
All Liberty County county property owners paid 2 mils for the industrial authority.
Property owners paid 15.25 mils for Liberty County Schools.
Rates are set, but values can change
Every year, governments hold millage rate hearings for the public. They also publish the proposed millage rate for the coming year. Elected officials may say the millage rate will not change or that it has gone down. That alone means nothing unless you also know what the assessed property values are doing. When the market is hot and prices are high, that means the assessed value also goes up. A homeowner may be paying the same millage rate from one year to the next, but if their property value went up, so did their taxes.
Similarly, if property values go down but the millage rate remains unchanged, you may be paying fewer dollars while being taxed at the same rate as last year. You also might be getting fewer services for your dollar, depending on whether or not the amount of taxes a government body takes in is enough to cover existing expenses. (That’s why it’s important for elected and appointed officials to guard any budget surplus for hard times.)
So how can you tell whether your taxes went up or down? Look for the net tax dollar increase and the net tax percent increase. For example, Liberty County taxes went up by these percentages from 2018 to 2022, according to last year’s Liberty County Board of Commissioners’ 2022 Property Tax Digest and Five Year History public notice:
- 2018: 2.74% (up $476,365 from 2017)
- 2019: 7.35% (up $1,313,482 from 2018)
- 2020: 7.64% (up $1,464,621 from 2019)
- 2021: 7.56% (up $1,561,377 from 2020)
- 2022: 11.99% (up $2,662,652 from 2021)
So where does all the money go?
Whatever taxes, fees, or other revenue streams a government entity takes in goes into its accounts. Usually, a city, county, or other entity will have a “General Fund” that covers operating expenses and salaries, and one or more other funds dedicated to running various operations. For example, Walthourville has two main pots of money: the General Fund, which is where the majority of the city’s money goes, and the Water Fund, which is a separate fund just for running the Water Department — things like employee salaries, replacement pipes for the old ones that were worn out, the new aerator to fix the “smelly water” issue, billing, trucks, and so on.
The budget tells you how the money is supposed to be parceled out for each department. The general ledger is the city or county checkbook, which shows when, to whom, and for how much the city made payments. Moss gave The Current a copy of the city’s bills, showing which had been paid out of the General Fund and which out of the Water Fund:
The charges appear routine: bills for ADT, Comcast, Georgia Power, A-1 Uniforms, Cintas, Harris Ace Hardware, Murray Oil, Dawson General. Other bills included necessary services, like software for the court, bills from the city attorney and Morris Newspaper (the company that owns the legal organ, the Coastal Courier, where the city is required by state law to publish legal notices like those about upcoming hearings), and payments to Liberty County for housing and feeding jail detainees, doing code enforcement, paying into the victims’ fund, and the cost for electronic court records filed with the Georgia Superior Court Clerks’ Cooperative Authority. Moss said a charge listed as “VIP” refers to VIP Office and Furniture Supply in Hinesville, not a person who got special treatment.