The Liberty County Board of Commissioners voted 4-2 on November 16 to raise property taxes despite a standing-room-only crowd opposed to the move. The tense meeting highlighted disconnects between the commission and residents over costs, property values, the impact of growth and basic budgeting.
Voting for the countywide tax increase: District 1 Commissioner Marion Stevens, District 3 Commissioner Connie Thrift, District 6 Commissioner Eddie Walden, and Chairman Donald Lovette.
Voting against: District 4 Commissioner Maxie Jones and District 5 Commissioner Gary Gilliard.
District 2 Commissioner Justin Frasier was absent.
The board also voted to approve millage rates set by the Board of Education (15.25 mils), Development Authority (2 mils), and Hospital Authority (3.843 mils). While those entities did not change their millage rates, the actual dollar amount of those taxes also will go up because of higher property values in Liberty County.
Building growth, raising values
“Real growth” increased in the county by $492,129,206, most of which was additional homes and commercial buildings — as opposed to state-mandated reassessments of existing property values. Property values can rise due to inflation or to new construction or improvements, and those can lead to higher property taxes even if the millage rate stays the same or goes down.
Under the law, “tax-levying authorities” like the county commission, the school board, the hospital, cities, or the county development authority can calculate a “rollback” millage rate that would bring in the same amount of taxes as the previous year.
However, if they decide to raise the millage rate, they have to advertise three public hearing dates in the public notice section of the legal organ, as well as send out press releases to local news organizations.
Higher values, higher exemptions
More property owners sought tax exemptions last year, and those exemptions outstripped growth.
The increase in property values means potentially more tax dollars coming into the county’s coffers. In the City of Hinesville, the tax digest is up $221,322,010, or 25.9%, while in the other cities and unincorporated areas, the tax digest is up $270,817,196 or 25.4%.
But the total amount of tax exemptions that property owners sought was $557,668,981 — up 46%. As a result, in order to cover the county’s operating costs for 2023, some budget cuts had to be made — most notably, about $625,000 that would have been used to hire more county firefighters — and the millage rate had to be increased.
The required public notice announcing the millage rate increase was the source of much contention during the meeting. Angry residents said they did not understand how the county could raise taxes 35% in one year.
Chief Financial Officer Samantha Richardson, who had given a detailed presentation explaining how the county had arrived at its proposed millage rate, called the 35% figure in the public notice “very misleading,” which prompted more confusion from the standing-room-only crowd of about 40 people.
Greg Nelms, who said he works for the federal government and has to do budgets each year, told the commission, “I’m sure the Georgia Department of Revenue would like to know you discount their methods. That’s not how this works here. The Department of Revenue requires the standardized methods for the five-year tax levy so that consumers can be informed and have some protection for ourselves….According to your own reports, Liberty County expenditures have doubled from 2019 to 2024. Budget items doubled. Doubled? From what, $27 million? Fortunately for you, property values have been great here. We’ve had an $850 million increase in property values since then…. And if it weren’t for our pocketbooks, with that, the county would be darn near close to broke.”
Nelms noted that nearby coastal counties had not had similarly drastic tax increases after Hurricane Irma: “They’re not surprised. They’re not having a 35% increase. They’re not having the woes we’re having. So I’m questioning why we’re here. I mean, we’re even outpacing inflation. You know, what gives?”
Martha Dykes, a 75-year-old widow on a fixed income who ays she has to work, called the increase “frightening, especially to us seniors… When I was in high school, I took a basic math class which taught me how to maintain a balance sheet and a budget…. You are proposing to squeeze us and suffocate the very life out of the very ones who bring life to Liberty County. …People are afraid. They’re afraid of losing their homes, of losing their properties. You know, you’re supposed to be good stewards of the people’s money…. We’re overburdened by this economy, and you want to raise our taxes. “
Lu Smith said her family has lived in Hinesville for a century after they were forced to move from land now part of Fort Stewart. She criticized the commission’s spending on out-of-county retreats and the decision to change meeting times, making them inconvenient for people in jobs during the day. “I was in finance for 30 years. This is the most bizarre thing I have ever seen in my life,” she said, smacking her papers on the podium for emphasis.
Randall Edwards said, “I have never in my life either heard of tax increases like this. I have other properties I have to pay taxes on. Never have they gone up like this. This property goes up every year. I don’t undertsand some of this…. The 35% tax increase that they put in that paper? You talk about get some feathers ruffled?” Waving at the audience, he continued, “That’s all the feather ruffles right there.”
A failure to communicate
Some residents said they wanted more information and expressed frustration when they couldn’t get answers to their questions.
Robert Daniels told the commissioners, “My property down here since 2019 has went up 20%, just on taxes, just for the millage rate or whatever, I don’t know why it went up 20% for the last four years but that passed. Now y’all wanna do 35% in one year? … The other thing, too, these big warehouses? Do they not pay taxes? I mean, y’all smiling. I’m asking. They don’t have to pay taxes?”
“The warehouses are not a part of what we’re dealing with tonight,” Lovette said.
The audience called out, “Yes, they are!”
“But wait a minute,” Daniels said. “They tear up the roads a lot worse than I do….Why do they not have to pay taxes?”
Lovette added, “Also, when it comes to appraised values, that comes through the Tax Assessor’s office, not through the County Commission’s office. That’s downstairs.”
“But we’ve already got a 20% increase in four years, which was hard enough to swallow, but now we’re gonna do a 35%?” Daniels asked. “It don’t matter to me who’s pulling it out of my pocket. But my pocket matters.”
“I hear you,” Lovette answered.
“Sharpen your pencils,” Daniels said. “I live by a budget. Everybody should. But anyway, sharpen your pencils, guys. Y’all can do it. Y’all can do it. Get those [de[artment] heads, get ’em to do the right thing. 35% is way too much.”
Carly Backus, who said she’s relatively new to the area, was “shocked to say the least when I heard about this increase. And I really don’t have any comments, I have questions. Is that permissible, to ask you questions and you answer them?” Lovette explained that the hearing was not for questions and answers. Backus complained that she had sent questions to his office and had not received a response.
After the meeting, former Sugar Hill councilwoman and mayor pro tem Susie Walker, who retired to Sunbury, said, “It’s their job to inform [the citizens], educate them. If you’re not educated during it, you’re gonna be upset. You’re gonna be angry. And that’s what’s happening with everyone out there. And I feel it. I feel it.”
Lovette told The Current, “I try hard to educate them….I can’t drag out the meetings forever trying to explain how to go from A to Z…. I’m trying so hard [to educate citizens], but some of them just don’t want to hear it.”
One mil equals $1 of every $1,000 of taxable fair market value. Only the first 40% of your home’s value is taxed. If the tax assessor says the fair market value of your house is $100,000, then you only pay taxes on $40,000 of that value. (One mil of that value would be $40.) Look at the millage rate and move the decimal point one place to the left, then multiply the taxable part of your home’s fair market value to find the tax.
Here’s a breakdown of the property tax increase, depending on where people live in Liberty County:
- In unincorporated Liberty County, the county millage rate is 21.14 mils, an increase of 1.749 mils. If you live in a home with fair market value of $150,000, the county property tax increase would be $318.36. If you own a business structure, vacation home, or other property that you don’t live in year-round, and if that property’s fair market value is $125,000, you would pay $274.45 in county property taxes on it.
- In the City of Hinesville, the proposed county millage rate is 18.51 mils, an increase of 2.375 mils. That’s on top of the city’s millage rate. The county charges Hinesville less to avoid double taxation on services like fire and police.
- In Allenhurst, Flemington, Gum Branch, Midway, Riceboro, and Walthourville, the proposed county millage rate is 21.14 mils, an increase of 1.552 mils. That is also on top of any city millage rate, such as the one Walthourville officials are considering.
If a house has a fair market value of $100,000, and is taxed on $40,000 of that, here’s what the county tax would be under the new millage rate:
- Unincorporated: $40,000 x .03507 = $1402.80
- Hinesville: $40,000 x .01911 = $764.40
- Allenhurst, Flemington, Gumbranch, Midway, Riceboro, Walthourville: $40,000 x .03339 = $1,335.60
However, you can lower your tax bill by hundreds of dollars by applying for an exemption. These exemptions are discounts off your home’s 40% taxable assessed value. For example, a $10,000 exemption would mean that you are only taxed on $30,000 of the above example (knocking that tax bill down to $1052.10 in unincorporated, $573.30 in Hinesville, and $1,001.70 in other cities). Everyone’s situation is different, so consult with the Liberty County Tax Assessor’s office to figure out which exemption is best for you.
What’s the money for?
Georgia law requires each county to develop a plan, called the Service Delivery Strategy, that specifies all services the county and the cities or other entities within it provide. The leaders of each entity — each mayor, the county chairperson, and the Lberty County Development Authority chair — sign the Service Delivery Strategy, promising that residents of unincorporated areas won’t pay water and sewer fees that are “arbitrarily higher” than the ones people in the municipalities pay.
Liberty County officials offered a video explanation of the millage rate-setting process:
In 2022, Liberty County’s plan listed these services: “Airport, Animal Control, Building Inpsections, Code Enforcement, Cooperative Extension Service, Coroner, Courts (magistrate), Courts (municipal), Division of Family and Child Services, Development Authority, District Attorney, E-911 Services, Emergency Management Agency, Emergency Medical Services, Engineering, Fire Suppression, Fire Prevention and Education, Flood Hazard Mitigation, Health Department, Housing Authority, Library, Mosquito Spraying, Planning and Zoning, Police, Public Defender, Recreation and Leisure, Road Maintenance (Clean/Mow), Road Maintenance (Grading/ROW), Road Maintenance (Improvements), Senior Citizen Services, Sewer, Sheriff, Soil Erosion Mitigation, Solid Waste Collection, Street Lights, Tax Assessor, Tax Collecting/Disbursement, Vocational Training, Voter Registration, and Wastewater.”
The county also noted that its water service plan had been revised and that MACE, the Multi-Agency Crack/Drug Enforcement Unit, had been “discontinued/disbanded in 2012.”
The city, county, and LCDA officials also attest that any services “primarily for the benefit of the unincorporated area of the county are borne by the unincorporated areas resident, individuals, and property owners who receive such service,” even if one or more municipalities split the cost with the county.
Haggling over services
A case in point: Walthourville Fire Department, which quickly professionalized, is fully staffed by certified firefighters and is demanding the county pay more to have Walthourville Fire cover the unincorporated areas of Liberty County.
For some time, Liberty County has paid Walthourville $16,000 per year for those services. Interim Fire Chief Nicolas Maxwell says that the cost of doing business has gone up. The city wrangled new fire trucks and equipment, which cost money to run and maintain.
Liberty County Fire Services is a combination volunteer-professional agency. The Current’s Jake Shore previously reported that Liberty County’s fire coverage is not keeping pace with its warehouse and industrial growth. Interagency agreements with nearby fire services like Walthourville’s help the county cover homes, businesses, and emergency medical services in areas outside the city limits.
Walthourville is in deep financial trouble — at least half a million dollars’ worth if it sets all of its cash toward the debt. The town’s fire department is one service the county needs to mitigate its own serious problems with fire coverage. But the county and city don’t agree on the actual amount of help it gets. The county says the town’s fire crews responded to about half as many calls as WFD says it did. Maxwell told the Walthourville City Council at its November 14 meeting the difference has to do with the way the county tracks its calls. Add the expenses of maintaining the new equipment and the cost of paying certified professional firefighters, and those costs are nearly double what the county is offering to pay WFD for its services.
City Councilwoman Bridgette Kelly thought the city should ask for $50,000 and the council authorized Maxwell to seek that amount in negotiations with the county.
In Hinesville, the city council approved a 15.97% property tax increase based on 10.15 mils, down from 10.3 mils. A homeowner whose house has a fair market value of $100,000 would pay about $55.92 in property tax. Non-homestead property with a fair market value of $150,000 would be taxed at about $83.88.
According to the city’s published Annual Comprehensive Financial Review, property taxes brought $8,873,872 into Hinesville’s coffers in fiscal year 2022, which ended Oct. 31.
Hinesville Chief Financial Office Kim Ryon pointed out repeatedly that the city’s millage rate is its lowest since 1984. However, Hinesville’s home values in 2023 are considerably higher than those in 1984. Nationally, average home values have almost tripled since 1984: After adjustment for inflation, a home worth $100,000 in 1984 is worth $281,858.49 today.
While the county and cities work out their agreements, taxpaying homeowners have complained loudly and bitterly about pending property tax increases. At its Nov. 14 meeting, Walthourville’s city council voted at the last possible minute to advertise millage rate hearings, as opposed to the series of recent hearings that were held for citizens to vent about the proposed tax. Because the council has yet to pass a balanced budget for the fiscal year ending Dec. 31, Walthourville homeowners say they have no idea how to plan for an as-yet-undetermined millage rate.