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Whew! Taxpayers won't have to dish out an extra $206

People with a homestead in Screven County can breathe a sigh of relief. They won’t have to shell out an additional $206 in taxes this spring.

Gov. Sonny Perdue signed legislation last week funding the homeowner tax relief grants. Perdue had threatened to cut the grants, in light of a $2.6 billion state budget shortfall. But lawmakers voted to restore $428 million for the grants, partly because the $787 billion federal stimulus package frees up state money to be used for other things in the budget, including the homeowner tax relief grants.

“We’re all thankful that is not going to come about and we don’t have to re-do it, not only for taxpayers but for the extra work that would have gone into” billing and collecting the extra funds, said Tax Commissioner David Long.

In future years, the state will only give out the homeowner tax relief grants if state revenue grows enough to fund them. That means no grants are likely in coming years, and that, may mean Screven County homeowners will pay $200 more in property taxes this fall.

“There’s a chance,” homeowners will pay more, said Screven County Commission Chairman Stan Sheppard. “The jury’s still out on it.” State lawmakers are considering other measures, such as an increase in the amount of the homestead exemption or a freeze on increases in property value, which might lessen tax bills. “It’s going to be a state decision,” Sheppard said.”

Locally, Sheppard said county officials are doing everything they can to keep from raising property taxes. “The board of commissioners is adamantly opposed to any kind of millage increase for next year,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep that from happening.”

Sheppard said department heads have been meeting and trying to come up with ways to cut expenses. “We’re trying desperately to find ways to save money without having to cut services, lay people off, reduce salaries or furlough people,” he said. “My sense of what people on the board are saying is we’re absolutely not going to vote on a tax increase.”

Meanwhile, the county has something of a cushion -- $4 million that commissioners agreed in December could be diverted from a landfill fund and used instead in the general operating budget.

The money was raised in a special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST) that was first levied about 20 years ago. By the time the total $4 million was collected five years later, the state and federal governments had put so many restrictions on landfills that building a landfill in Screven County was no longer economically reasonable, County Manager Rick Jordan said. The county has spent interest money gained on the $4 million, but the principle has sat in the account unused for 15 years.

Because of the recent financial crunch caused by the faltering economy, county officials who have been looking for new sources of revenue and ways to cut costs turned their attention to the $4 million that was gathering dust on the county books.

When voters agree to a SPLOST, the money is dedicated to specific projects. But in cases where the specific project later turns out to be not feasible, the money can be used for debt service and, if a county has no debt, to offset property tax increases.

Sheppard said the $4 million doesn’t absolve commissioners from making tough decisions. “We’re trying to stay one step ahead” and not use up that reserve, he said. “We’ll have revenue shortfalls for the next couple of years.”