GILMER COUNTY, Ga. – Both the BOC’s special meeting and the BOE’s monthly work session saw discussion after falling median sales ratios in the Tax Assessors Office could set the county up for another state consent order and penalties in fees.
Chief Appraiser, Theresa Gooch stated that if the county’s median falls below a 38, the first consequence comes as the possibility of losing some public utility money or tax revenue. This number comes from the state’s Department of Audits and Accounts (DOAA) studies that occur annually. This means the Audit will look at samples of sales in the year and look at the sale value and compare that to what the county Tax Assessors assessed the value at. Since the state expects the assessors to set there evaluations at 40 percent of the property’s value. The optimum ratio, according to the state, is set between 38 and 42 percent so that there is no major variations.
However, to “pass” the audit, a term presented by BOE Finance Director Trina Penland, the assessed evaluations must fall between 36 percent and 44 percent, allowing for a 4 percent margin of error on either side as some might say. The report of the test samples for 2021 in Gilmer County fell to 35.88 percent, according to Penland’s report.
The study lags, however, according to Gooch who explained that the Department uses 2021 sales to set 2021 values while the county must use 2020 sales to anticipate and set expected 2021 values. The time lag also comes as the county has to have its values set by January 1, 2021. The state, however, comes later as Gooch said in the August 2022 meeting that the county just received the study results. Since the county’s and the states values are at odds, the discrepancy arises. The difference is so stark this year with the rising inflation and market values in just the course of one year.
There is no immediate consequence this year as the county is not under an official review year, Gooch said that will take place next year with regards to the 2022 assessments currently in their final stages. The Tax Assessors will use this information to set the expected 2023 values, but the state will wait until the end of 2023 to set those values based on actual sales.
With the current issue, she urged the county to formally file an appeal to have their concerns on record that Gilmer is “not happy with the findings.” Additionally, Gooch noted that the county could rise up again and make the requirement by next year’s review, but she has concerns if the state continues studies with the time difference allowing major influences to change market values drastically between the county’s anticipatory values from 2022 and the states actuals from 2023.
Not meeting the state required study median causes a fine, County Chairman Charlie Paris noted $174,000. The option is going under a consent order. Paris also noted that the last time the county was under a consent order, “it cost us more than paying the fine.”
In addition to those, Penland reported to the BOE that the Tax Assessors will also have to change their ratios for the digest in coming years, further reducing the money collected for both the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners budgets.
Gilmer County is not the only county going through this issue currently as Penland showed reports from 2019, 2020, and 2021 audits with more and more counties falling out of compliance each year. In the 2021, the majority of North Georgia along with counties all over the state are facing this same issue of being out of compliance.
Gooch reported that the last time Gilmer County was out of compliance, with a median percentage below 36, was “prior to 2010” and the last time it was out of optimal range, with a median percentage below 38, was 2013.
ELLIJAY, Ga. – Receiving their Audit Report, Gilmer County saw a generally good audit, with most portions finding no deficiencies and the company delivering a “clean, unmodified opinion.”
According to the Rushton audit report, the county’s general Audit Opinion Letter reported as clean and unmodified, meaning that the company’s opinion is that financial statements were fairly stated and had no issue.
Delving into the audit and breaking down the county’s position saw several different points of financial interest along with comments on one area.
Despite the COVID Outbreaks and issues, the audit reveals increases in the county’s unrestricted funds showcasing that even though the virus and issues occurred, Gilmer saw an increase in spending and in areas like the Hotel/Motel Tax.
Gilmer already noticed the trend last year as research done on the SPLOST Tax during the COVID outbreak showed surprising increases in June and July of 2020. This was surprising because the county halted capital spending earlier in 2020 and many locals saw businesses closing due to the virus. However, those that did stay open saw an influx of people. Many attributed the influx to visitors to the county attempting to flee the major cities during the worst parts of the the COVID shutdown.
There were increases in costs according to the audit, some of the larger ones came through Fire and Road Departments, but saw slight decreases in other areas like the Detention Center.
According to Chris Hollifield, who presented the Audit Report on behalf of Rushton, the county increased in “unassigned fund balance” from $6.3 million to $10.2 million. Hollifield said, “That’s about 5.5 months of our expenditures for 2020. So, when you think about the health of the county, where should we be? We expect to be three to four months minimum… We have those ‘reserves,’ if you will, to carry forward to the next year’s budget.”
These reserves have been brought up in Audits over the years as important items. Auditors relayed that they registered the balance by months of expenditures because they saw that if something dire happened and no revenue comes in, then the county could cover its costs for the stated number of months.
Hollifield said the county has done a good job getting to this point as he could remember in the past when the county could not achieve that reserve.
The audit also noted that the county received support in its funding. Some of the funding for expenditures and capital outlays came through the CARES Act funds.
With another letter on internal control matters, laws compliance, grants and debts agreements. The audit report noted five deficiencies and two non-compliance including one overbudget and timing on payouts. The comments seemed to revolve around deposits’ timing. Though Hollifield noted that some considerations could be made for COVID delaying certain things, they noted that deposits were not made weekly like they, the audit company, would have liked to seen.
The Audit also noted no findings or issues in the handling of government funding like in the CARES Act. As the county handled the governement funds and they exceeded $750,000, Hollifield said this isn’t a usual report for the county, but was required specifically because the total amount of funding exceeded that limit.
HIAWASSEE, Ga – Rushton and Associates gave the city of Hiawassee a clean or unmodified opinion for their 2020 audit. It’s the second year in a row that Hiawassee received this rating.
The 2020 audit showcased how city revenues dropped and expenditures increased for the year too. Revenues were down $55,012 (5.4 percent). Expenditures were up $73,922 (8.8 percent).
The following revenue areas decreased for the year:
- Motor Vehicle Tax – $49,779
- Franchise Tax – $12,447
- Intergovernmental Revenues – $56,457
However, four departments increased revenue:
- Property Tax – $13,360
- Local Option Sales Tax – $10,402
- Alcohol Beverage Tax – $6,296
- Fines, Fees, and Forfeitures – $24,352
On the expenditure side, the administration increased by $82,997 due to capital outlay.
The unassigned fund balance grew from 2019 to 2020 to $389,653 or 47.6 percent of expenditures. The city has 5.1 months of operating expenses on hand in case of emergencies. It’s recommended to keep at least three months of expenditures stored away.
In 2020 the city also paid off one loan in the amount of $697,996 and paid $287,585 in principle on other loans. Since 2017, they reduced the debt by 41 percent. Currently, $2,694,778 in debt is still outstanding.
Hiawassee received $47,000 in CARES Act Funding, $3,000GMA Safety Grant from LGRMS, $68,000 USDA Rural Development Grant for the Paris Building, $17,000 LMIG grant from GDOT, and $8,000 mural grant.
Water and Sewer
The water and sewer operating revenue grew by $279,015 (14.4 percent). $114,559 came from a payment made by the water treatment plant. According to Rushton and Associates CPA Chris Hollifield, the remaining amount, $164,456 came from revenue growth.
Operating expenses for 2020 increased by $69.352 (4.2 percent). From 2019 to 2020, operating income shot up by $209,663.
Water Treatment Plant
Revenue for the water treatment plant decreased by $12,211 (1.65 percent) and expenses increased by $192,110 (46.4 percent). The payment made to water and sewer accounted for the majority of the change. In 2019, the water treatment plant made $327,838 in income. In 2020, the plant’s income was $123,512.
Police Year in Review Report
In 2020, Hiawassee Police Department filed 274 reports, issued 308 warnings and 325 tickets. It made 75 arrests: 10 misdemeanor drug offenses, 18 felony drug offenses, 44 other misdemeanors, and 3 felonies.
ELLIJAY, Ga. – Gilmer County and its Probate Court are deep amid recounting ballots today as they join in what Chief Registrar Tammy Watkins is calling both an audit and a recount for the Presidential Election of 2020.
A major stress on certain county offices, this major process has drawn in employees from both the Probate Office and Registrar’s Office to undertake recounting every one of the 16,576 ballots cast in Gilmer County, according to viewers and officials present at the recount.
Begun on Friday, November 14, 2o20, the process is being undertaken in the Jury Assembly Room of the Gilmer County Courthouse. Gilmer Probate Judge Scott Chastain said they used the Jury Assembly Room to allow public access and viewing of the audit, as required by law. However, he said the room also allowed for social distancing between tables and for space so that one table would not accidentally hear someone from the next table over possibly causing some confusion.
Chastain told FYN that the process was going well on Friday, and they have been looking at the progress daily. Scheduled to count through today and ending tomorrow, Tuesday, November 17, 2020, they actually have until midnight on Wednesday to finish the count. This means that if something happens, the county does have a buffer of one extra day just in case.
Nearly twenty people at some times helping the process with including some floating staff that comes and goes, Chastain said that eleven core people including the elections review board are constantly working through the process.
Chastain and Watkins are both confident in the speed they have been accomplishing the task and are both fully confident in finishing in the scheduled time.
One of the major points of note in this process, those involved in recounting the ballots are only counting the presidential election. Chastain said this was a concern of his in the beginning. He worried that they would be needing to recount every vote in every race. Instead, focusing only on the presidential race is also helping in accomplishing the recount and audit with speed.
Moving forward, two very different outcomes could mean two very different futures for Georgia. Should the audit come up with different numbers than what the computers accounted for, Chastain said, “When we’re finished statewide, my hope is what the machines said is what we come up with. Because if we have different numbers than the machines, it’s not going to be a good situation statewide.”
Chief Registrar Tammy Watkins echoed a similar thought saying that the recount could prove to be a test for the election equipment statewide. Watkins has also voiced, in previous interviews, her faith in Gilmer’s elections staff and poll workers and has been happy with the efforts that Gilmer has put forth in elections.
This specific election has seen records broken in terms of those visiting in early voting as well as absentee ballots. Yet, this phrase is beginning to lose some of its impact as Gilmer has repeatedly increased in the numbers this year in each of the election days throughout local, state, and federal offices.
Regardless of what the audit comes up with, some are still concerned that hand counts could become a common thing in future elections with parties constantly claiming instances of voter fraud and suppression as well as other things. However, nothing concrete has been reported yet.