People often ask me, “How’s the county doing financially?” It’s a great question. The short answer is, we’re in great shape.
First, our tax rates and overall tax burden are among the lowest in Georgia. The Board of Commissioners (BOC) doesn’t control the school tax, which is the biggest item on your tax bill. But, combined, the three property tax rates we do control are the 27th lowest of Georgia’s 159 counties. Also, we’re one of three counties in Georgia that doesn’t charge an additional 1% local sales tax to help fund county operations. Our combined local sales and property tax rates are the second lowest in the state.
We’ve adopted a floating homestead exemption for the general County Maintenance & Operations Tax, which is the largest of the three rates controlled by the BOC. After a homeowner applies for and receives a homestead exemption, the exemption automatically increases to fully offset any increase in assessed value not caused by physical improvements to the property. The net taxable value is frozen for as long as you own the home.
Like almost all other counties, we do have a 1% Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) that can be used only for capital projects and purchases. We use about half of our SPLOST funds for road improvements, and for the most part we buy all fire, police and other vehicles with the rest. We can’t do without those things, so property taxes would have to go up without SPLOST. The remainder is used for projects like new fire stations and parks; expansions of court, library and office buildings; the jail; and the airport.
In spite of our low overall taxes, we’ve been able to accumulate about $50 million in cash operating reserves, about one fourth of our annual operating budget. We have an excellent AA bond rating. And, we never borrow money for operations, like most other counties do.
Our challenge is to keep up with the county’s growth while keeping taxes low. The BOC considered a small tax increase this year to catch up on the numbers and pay for first-responder personnel, which have fallen behind the growth. Due to strong opposition, we held tax rates flat, postponed some of the catch-up initiatives, and budgeted to use about $6 million in reserves in 2021 to start the catch-up process. Projections are that we’ll need to use half that much again in 2022, before normal growth in revenues catches up with costs in 2023. By then, we’ll be facing new financial pressures from growth.
With our low tax rates, it’s likely our public safety and other services will continue to lag somewhat behind our growth. The officers and leadership do an amazing job with what they have, earning elite accreditations and ratings, but it’s an ongoing struggle to keep up.
As always, I’m interested in your thoughts. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Harry Johnston, chairman of the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners. He’s a retired CPA and accounting manager, and a former district commissioner.