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.

Union County declares itself pro-Second Amendment

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pro-second amendment

BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – Union County Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris adopted a resolution in support of the Second Amendment during January’s commission meeting.

The resolution cited that it’s a Constitutional right for people to “keep and bear arms” as well as the Georgia Constitution which prohibits the state from infringing on that right.

Paris and Sheriff Mack Mason expressed their support for the Second Amendment and for the rights of citizens. They asked the governor and General Assembly to “take no action which would violate the freedoms guaranteed in both Constitutions.”

The measure doesn’t address the federal government. It also doesn’t explicitly use the term “sanctuary,” which is a term included in several pro-Second Amendment resolutions or laws.

“I think every resolution you see is a little different, but they all amount to the same thing. They all have the same opportunity, same weight to work,” Paris stated.

Those in the crowd asked if Paris could look into amending the resolution to include “sanctuary county” because they believed it carried more weight with the federal government. He confirmed that someone will look into the matter and review the document.

“We’re trying to make it, so we’re protected, but if the federal government for some reason were to do something that’s through the federal government, but the fact that we’ve got a resolution still gives our sheriff the right to…meet them at the county line and say ‘you guys leave you aren’t coming in here, Paris explained.

The commissioner viewed mass gun confiscation unlikely from the federal or state government, but this measure grants the sheriff’s ability to question new stricter laws.

41 other counties in Georgia have adopted sanctuary city measures. Fannin, Dawson, Banks, Gilmer, White, Habersham, Pickens, and Rabun are some of those counties.

Copy of the resolution

As for the new gun range, the DNR is crossing every T to try and appease everyone before proceeding. Also, the DNR will undergo office changes and possibly new regulations now that the Biden Administration has taken office.

County Business

In January 2021, the county entered into several agreements, contracts, and resolutions. For the jail, they renewed the contract agreement for food services at no additional costs and agreed to a contract with Roof Management, Inc to replace the jail and sheriff’s office roof for $215,500.00.

Rushton and Company will complete the 2020 audit with the agreed-upon cost, not to exceed, $59,000.

For the senior center, Union County provided $95,000 as the local share with Legacy Link overseeing the other costs.

Union County 911 Center generator’s planned maintenance cost $1,151.02 from Cummins, Inc.

The statewide mutual aid and assistance agreement between Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA/HS) and Union County was renewed. This agreement provided the framework to support mutual assistance in managing an emergency or disaster.

A contract with Winkler and Winkler was agreed upon for the expansion of the View Grill at the Union County Community Center for the amount of $330,370.00. Once completed, some of the outdoor seating at the View will be enclosed.

The second resolution passed dealt with the Alcohol License Fee Schedule. The cost of the full background check for applicants increased to $72.50. The alcohol beverage permits for employees will be $37.00 and renewal will cost $16.00.

Farmers Market Way and Market View Connecter were accepted into the county road maintenance.

Sons of the American Revolution honor first responders

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BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – The Blue Ridge Mountain Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution paid homage to local firefighters, law enforcement, EMT, and EMS workers during the December Commission meeting.

Sid Turner presented three awards. The first the law enforcement commendation went to Lt. Leon James who serves the Union County Sheriff’s Office and primarily stationed at the courthouse. In 2017, he became the commanding officer of the courthouse law enforcement operation, assisted in implementing the security checkpoints, and wrote the safety plan. Later, Sheriff Mason chose James slow down traffic in Union County.

Lt. Brent Long received the firefighter safety commendation. Long’s served the fire department for 21 years, initially as a volunteer. In 2002, he became a full-time firefighter. He’s responsible for training the entire department and emergency medical services. He’s also the deputy director of emergency management.

Frank Lowery accepted the emergency services commendation. Lowery’s been with the Union County EMS since 2012 and “consistently delivers care to his patients at a high level.” In 2016, he was promoted to shift supervisor and performs training coordinator and quality assurance coordinator responsibilities. Lowery also received the Murray King award for outstanding service and dedication to the citizens of Union County.

Proclamations

Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris issued three proclamations during the December meeting, Retired Teacher’s Day on November 1, Arbor Day on February 9, and Radon Action Month in January.

Contracts and Grants

SPLOST funds were used to purchase a $478,873 fire engine/pumper for the fire department. Also, the county entered into two no cost contracts with debris removal services as required by FEMA.

Winkler and Winkler were awarded a $330,370.00 contract to upgrade the View Grill. SPLOST funds were used for this project.

To repair the roof at the Union County Sheriff’s Office, Jail to Roof Management were awarded $215,500.00 in SPLOST funds.

Two accountability court grants for the Enotah Family Treatment Court and health court were accepted.

The emergency moratorium on multi-family housing units was extended for another 190 days from October 8, 2020.

 

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