Packed room voices opinion on Union’s property reevaluation

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crowd for property reevaluation

BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – A raucous crowd turned out in force to discuss taxes and property reevaluation after notices hit residents’ mailboxes at the start of the month.

The meeting was moved to the jury assembly room and some still had to stand for the 2-plus hour-long meeting focused on property values and taxes. Assistant Police Chief Shawn Dyer instructed the crowd to respect each other, or an officer would remove them from the meeting. The cantankerous didn’t always heed the advice after the meeting began, but no one was escorted out of the room.

“The growth is what causes expenses to go up. We all know that. No matter where you’ve been before. The more you grow the more those expenses are going to go up. And we will continue to prepare for them, but these are not simple solutions, and they all take time, careful consideration, and planning. We have and will continue to be working with the Georgia Mountain Regional Commission,” Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris opened.

Union County’s also working with the Carl Vinson Institute, University of Georgia, and TBT to assist with future planning and find other revenue options to help lower property taxes.

Sales tax captures all people in a county whether they are property owners, renters, employees, visitors, short-time residents, or short-term rental and we certainly want them to assist in paying with the operation of our government,” Paris said. “For anyone to say that we are trying to grow the county without any thought of planning our future is simply not accurate.”

Stan King from GMASS, the company hired to reevaluate property value in Union County, explained that the estimated tax on the bottom of the reassessment notice wasn’t the tax for 2021. The taxes for 2021 haven’t been set as of yet because the millage rate hasn’t been established.

Paris stated that the millage rate is likely to go down this year, but the county doesn’t know the exact number at this time. Departments are just now turning in budget requests for the next year. The millage rate is set according to what a county budget requires.

“We’re going to make every effort to cut that mill rate as much as possible. You’ve got my commitment that we’re going to try to do that and cut as much as we can. But we’ve also got these increased costs; they’re not huge, but they’re going to be enough because of the sheriff’s department – no offense to the sheriff’s department – but it’s hard. We’re finding firemen the same thing,” Paris explained about the millage rate and increased public safety departments. Many counties are competing for employees and they’re going to the areas offering the higher-paying jobs.

Chart of Union County home sales. The blue line indicates the average sale price and the red line is the assessed value.

The number on the reassessments uses last year’s millage rate and last year Union County experienced a 17 percent tax increase on the county side. The county and the school each propose a separate millage rate and then it’s combined for the overall rate.

Even with last year’s tax increase, Union County had the 12th lowest tax rate in Georgia. Previously, it was the third-lowest.

The property reassessments were contracted out in 2019 and just completed in 2021. The revaluation was necessary because Union County had fallen below the state’s Fair Market Value requirements.

King explained that a county wants to fall between .36 and .42 in assessed Fair Market Value, but Union County had fallen below that range. If a property reassessment hadn’t taken place, then the county would have been fined by the state. The new rate places Union County into the .38-.39 area.

In other words, the value of home sales in Union County has continued to exponentially increase, but the assessed value largely remained flat. The reassessment catches property values up to the home sales value.

“In 2016, when the market started to increase in the value of home sales… I really picked out home sales because that’s the predominant class of properties that make up the tax digest,” King explained. “Our assessments being so much flatter than what the market actually does. It’s our duty to mirror the market.”

The county’s requirement by law to appraise all property at fair market value every year. The physical assessment only has to take place every three years.

GMASS Stan King

GMASS Assessor Stan King explained the intricacies of the property evaluation process.

After the reassessment, the assessments were brought up to Fair Market Value compared to the sales price.

This is why some people are experiencing property value increases of 100 percent or more. As home sale prices increase, then the assessed value of homes needs to match.

The home sales value continues to increase in North Georgia, which means values will probably need to be adjusted again.

However, once the housing market takes a downward turn, property owners need to make a report of that as well. Appraisals are typically a year behind concerning market values. Still, the market typically corrects itself.

“Between January and April, I would encourage everyone to file their [property] returns just like you do on your income tax, you’re supposed to do it on your property tax. Most people do not,” King said. “You’re paying taxes based on your property on January 1.”

Property owners still have time to appeal the new assessments, around 25 days. The tax assessor’s office can approve or deny exemptions depending on the property, such exemptions include homestead and agriculture. Flood plains and easements are typically taken into account at the time of evaluation. However, there’s no item that you can appeal for the amount of value increase.

The appraised value measures from the outside-to-outside wall, but there’s a difference in square footage if it’s heated or not.

“There’s an inflationary number that will be given to them of what they need to roll that back to on the inflationary growth. So, if you have your property and you’ve done nothing to that property, but we’ve increased the value all that is inflationary – the whole value difference is inflationary,” King added about the tax digest and millage rate process.

The tax digest is made up of more than just real estate such as heavy equipment, auto tags, timber, planes, and real property.

One veteran and former police officer Kevin Bloodworth spoke as part of the meeting and stated the value of Union County is in its citizens. He also criticized the county’s communication methods about the property reevaluation, saying if it had been better explained, then people wouldn’t be as angry.

“You got people out here living on $900 a month or less in Social Security so even a $100 increase in taxes plus the congruent increase in their insurance that’s a meal for them. They can’t drive somewhere but a couple times a week. Inflation is up 2.5 percent. Gasoline is up a gallon. The head of the federal reserve is telling us this time next year we may be under crushing inflation,” Bloodworth remarked. “Your job sir and that of your staff is finding ways to make this palatable and acceptable for the value of our community.”

Bloodworth also advocated for new building impact fees in the county.

Paris addressed impact fees, using Dawson County as an example. Many north Georgia counties don’t charge impact fees for new construction.

“A few years ago, Dawson County instituted impact fees to slow their growth instead it only sped up their growth. And today while our property tax rate was 18.9 mills, 12th lowest in the state, Dawson County, a county with similar size, population, and property values, was 23.6 mills, which made them the 18th lowest in the state,” Paris explained. “If you live in Dawson County, they’re going to make $5 million to $6 million more on their property taxes than we are based on last year’s mill.”

Paris reiterated that the last thing he wants is uncontrolled growth in Union County, but some growth is necessary to maintain the quality of life in the area. He touted Union General Hospital and local small businesses. They must be considered when developing the county.

“There’s nothing I would have loved better than to have left our property values just like they were. I did not make that decision. The board of assessors made that decision, and they made that decision because the state of Georgia was going to come down because it was impossible to keep up with values,” Paris commented.

The Sole Commissioner explained that 48 percent of Union County is owned by National Forest Service, 3 percent is owned by the TVA, and 20 percent is covenant-protected farmland. Additionally, Choestoe, Track Rock, and Suches don’t have access to public water. As a result, massive developments aren’t likely to happen and drive property values up. Without public water, it’s harder for developers to recoup their investments when they must build on 1.5 acres and include a well and septic system.

Paris took questions after the meeting ended on the topic.

As for how Paris operates his monthly meeting, he explained that anyone who believes they have something important to say can be placed on the agenda. Additionally, he said the question-and-answer session isn’t recorded because it doesn’t have to be. However, they do discuss every issue brought up during the Q and A sessions.

2020 audit reveals revenue up, expenses down in Union

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2020 audit clay pilgrim

BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – Union County received a clean/unmodified opinion concerning its 2020 audit from Rushton and Company, a CPA firm.

Clay Pilgrim, CPA, CPE, CCF, delivered the information during the July County Commission meeting.

“I do have great news, this is real riveting information this audit, so I’m glad you joined us,” Pilgrim told the large crowd. He also thanked all county officials for their help.

The 2020 fiscal budget was amended down from $17,999,955 to $17,468,052 during the meeting as well.

The net position/ county equity covers three areas, net investments and capital assets, restricted net position, and unrestricted net position.  The total net position for the county in 2020 was $57,418,192.

  • Capital assets and net investments – $47,643,505 – examples: buildings, equipment
  • Restricted net position – $5,456,656 – example: SPLOST
  • Unrestricted net positions – $4,318,031 – example: residual

“For the year, there was an increase in net position, revenues exceeded expenses by $5,505,303. The largest reason for that increase was some operating grants and contributions that were received and sales tax increases as well with a lower expense increase overall,” Pilgrim stated.

In Union County’s General Fund also known as the operating budget, revenues increased 21 percent ($3,708,099) in 2020. Here’s the following breakdown of revenue increases:

2020 audit revenues by source. Sales Tax was the largest at 35 percent and property tax came in second at 32 percent.

  • Property taxes – $181,943
  • Title ad valorem – $543,158
  • Intangible taxes – $174,580
  • Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) – $922,524
  • Intergovernmental revenues – $1,358,375

“[LOST increase] is a trend we’re seeing across the mountain areas of the state with sales tax. Folks moving this way or spending time up in the mountains with the pandemic that took place last year,” Pilgrim added.

The property tax line includes the last seven years of digest, any collections paid in 2020, and assessments.

Expenses for the county also increased by 4.7 percent ($777,040). The breakdown is as follows.

  • General administration – $944,789 – the cost included capital outlay projects and the county reappraisal.
  • Sheriff’s office – $297,845 – personal services

One area of expenditures decreased and that was highways and streets which were under by $583,708 also for personal services.

The unassigned fund balance or general fund equity will allow the county to operate for 2.7 months. The fund balance is $3,896,041. Last year, the fund balance was $1,805,929 and could only operate for 1.3 months.

2020 audit expenses Public Safety was the largest at 35 percent and general government came in second at 27 percent.

Pilgrim explained that counties want to keep between two- or three months’ worth of monies in the fund balance in case of emergencies. In 2019, when the county increased property taxes by 17 percent on its side, Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris explained that the dip in the fund balance was part of the reason why.

SPLOST 5 went into effect in 2021 and thus far $51,780 has been expended on capital projects. The 2015 SPLOST or SPLOST 4 expended $6,210,663 in collected sales tax. SPLOST money can’t go into the general fund.

“It does typically reduce the need for other taxation,” Pilgrim commented because it goes toward capital projects.

However, SPLOST doesn’t go toward the operational costs. TSPLOST has a little more room concerning the operation of roads and bridges.

Public raise concerns surrounding multifamily development ordinance

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multifamily development

BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – At the second reading of the multifamily development ordinance, several Union County residents expressed concern about apartments/townhome complexes.

The new section of the building ordinance establishes rules and regulations for multifamily housing. Previously, Union County didn’t have protocols set for these units.

“As more and more apartment complexes are being built here in Union County, it was determined that there needed to be specific rules and regulations for their construction. This was due to the impact they would have on county roads and due to the impact, they could potentially have on emergency services,” Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris explained.

The proposed addition spells out maximum structural height, minimum building setbacks, building accessibility, bumpers, road entrance requirements, and fire hydrant location.

Defined as a structure that can house five or more units, but limited to no more than 100 units, multifamily units can’t exceed a height of 40 feet from the highest point to the lowest exposed exterior point. Parapet walls can be no more than five feet and are included in the 40 feet.

Multifamily apartment complexes must be 1,000 feet apart from each other and independent structures must be 25 feet apart. The minimum setbacks are from the rear of the property 40 feet, 30 feet from the side, 20 feet from the front with no parking, and 40 feet from the front with parking, sidewalk, and yard.

Paris said people were rightly concerned about the possibility of apartment developments, and the ordinance is trying to prevent multifamily housing from rapidly expanding in the county. When the moratorium on multifamily developments was put into place in 2019, four developers had asked about building apartments in Union County. Currently, only one apartment complex is in process.

Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris

The majority of apartments exist within Blairsville city limits because it has a sewer system.

“No apartments can be built without the city of Blairsville approving the sewer system,” Paris commented.

Citizens expressed concern about Blairsville turning into Blue Ridge with townhomes on Main Street. The ordinance will make it “more difficult” for developers building within the county, but those seeking to build in the city will follow city council regulations.

The city and county haven’t met yet about water and sanitation cost increases associated with more housing units in a community. Paris promised they would have one in the future.

As traffic and construction start back up, the county believed now is the time to address multifamily developments and ensure guidelines are in place before any potential developer tries to build an apartment complex.

“We’re not trying to totally stop it. We’re trying to make it safe so it’s not a taxpayer burden once they’re done in the future,” Paris added.

He also stated that if the county experiences an influx of multifamily development requests, it will possibly strengthen the ordinance.

A local real estate agent stated that Union County doesn’t offer affordable housing to many of its residents who work in the service industry, and it needs to focus on more than retirees.

Inspection, Fire Department, the state regional commission, and an outside firm work together to address building codes. Many in Union County are against zoning and Paris wants to keep the citizens’ property rights intact.

TVA and U.S. Forest Service own approximately 50 percent of Union County and around 20 percent is farmland.

Several north Georgia counties are facing similar growth issues with an influx of people hoping to move to the mountains. Each is trying to determine the best path forward for their residents.

The meeting to adopt the new ordinance will take place on June 1 at 5 p.m. at the courthouse.

Paris addresses COVID-19 vaccine and county updates

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Lamar Paris

BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris ran an efficient meeting and covered several topics during the March 2021 meeting.

He reported that over 500 vaccine doses were administered at the last mass vaccine event but wasn’t sure if another mass vaccine day would occur. Also, Union County’s supply went from the Moderna to Pfizer vaccine.  Over 7,000 first doses and 5,000 second doses have been given in Union County. Georgia opened the vaccine up to everyone 16 and older on Thursday.

A new restroom is coming to Meeks Park, and TVA is funding approximately $25,000 for the project. It is located next to the intended location for an amphitheater.

Union’s economy is still performing well despite the pandemic. Paris stated that all new restaurants appear to be full almost every night.

The county entered into an agreement with the Georgia Forestry Commission allowing for Union County Fire Department to use surplus Forestry equipment when fighting fires. It’s a five-year agreement that needed to be updated due to a change of leadership. Administrative fees are $100 per transaction for non-title property and $200 per transaction for titled property.

A bank account was opened with United Community Bank for SPLOST 5 which is scheduled to kick in either late April or early May.

Two grants were accepted from the Accountability Courts Supplemental State Funds for Enotah Mental Health Court in the amounts of $29,280 and $6,470.

The County meeting in April was rescheduled for Tuesday, April 20 at 6 p.m. at the courthouse.

Board of Elections Changes

Elizabeth “Libby” Stevens became the Board of Elections Chair for a term of February 1, 2021, to December 31, 2024. She was already serving on the board and Commissioner Paris picked her to keep some normalcy on the board with all the election issues currently going on in the state.

James Sterling Fitzgerald will be taking her spot on the board for the term of January 1, 2021, to December 31, 2023.

Carl Foutz was also appointed to the Board of Elections from January 1, 2021, to December 31, 2022. He is replacing Bill Parker.

Democrats appoint two members, and Republicans appoint two members. The Commission appoints the chairman.

Union County lowers tax increase to 17 percent

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lowers tax increase

BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – In a called meeting, Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris approved dropping the tax increase from 19.98 percent to 17 percent.

“After hearing from constituents at the three public hearings, Union County has decided to reduce the proposed property tax increase to 17%. The school portion of your bill is about two-thirds of the total tax bill meaning that even with the increase from the county, your actual out of pocket property tax increase should only be about 5.8% of your total property tax bill,” Paris explained.

Millage Rate Resolution

The county side of the millage rate is now set at 7.178 mills, not the 7.361 mills that was approved in the August 27 called meeting.

The commissioner also detailed all the reasons behind the proposed increase.

  1.  “We have mostly been in the top three lowest mil rates in Georgia out of 159 counties since I have been in office.  In trying to help the public with low taxes and provide the best facilities and services possible, this very low rate is just not sustainable any longer.
  2. Increase of salaries for Sheriff and Jail deputies in order to maintain staff and not lose them to other counties.
  3. In order to keep property taxes low, we have had to utilize the reserve funds to help balance the budget and need to replenish them.
  4. Our medical insurance rates have increased each year with 2018 increasing $750,000 which we are still trying to make up for and are going up $100,000 next year.
  5. We are being required to have all property reevaluated in the county by next year and the cost is $380,000.
  6. Our commitment to a new gun range that has been in the works for nearly 5 years will be approximately $500,000 and it is too late to change. Thanks to the sheriff, 75% will be paid by grant funding.
  7. The State of Georgia has cut its budget 15% which is estimated to impact the county library, drug court, health dept by approximately $70,000.
  8. Vehicle maintenance and equipment repairs are up $40,000.
  9. Paving (LMIG Funds) from the State DOT will be decreased $104,000.
  10. While the county is being reimbursed for some of the COVID-19 funds, we have no idea what our cost and expense will be in 2021. We are just holding our breath with the huge amount of new infection we are now experiencing in the county and not sure what the future holds.

Thanks for your understanding as we are all working very hard to keep our budget as low as possible and we will all continue that process.  Thank you!!”

The board of education maintained it’s millage rate at 11.74 mills, which was lower than the rollback rate.

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