Hall County’s government is looking into the possibility of penalizing the school system for not setting a millage rate earlier.
At the Hall County Board of Commissioners meeting last week, Commissioner Craig Lutz asked county staff to pull its agreement with the school board “and look to see if there is anything (the county) could do to perhaps establish a penalty going forward to ensure they handle their business as required by law on time and not put the county commission in any kind of jeopardy.”
The county is required to file its tax digest with the state by Aug. 1, but has since received an extension to do so.
The school board plans to set the millage at its Aug. 6 meeting.
Currently, the county has the tax bill deadline for residents set for Dec. 1. But bills must be in the hands of taxpayers 60 days in advance.
If the bills are sent out late, the county would have to move back the deadline, which “could jeopardize cash flow for the county,” said Lutz during the meeting.
But school officials said about half the systems in the state have not set a millage rate yet and waiting until Aug. 6 could very well save the taxpayers money.
“We’re going to be in a position Aug. 6 to make a better decision than we would have been at the end of June and that’s what we’ve said all along,” said Will Schofield, superintendent. “I think had we been forced to recommend a roll-up rate in June, it would’ve been significantly higher than the roll-up rate Mr. (Lee) Lovett (deputy superintendent) and I are looking at now. That was the whole reason. We wanted to make sure we had the most accurate figures that we could.”
He said last year the system took a $1.5 million hit when property tax appeals came through. By waiting, the system has a better idea of what beginning balance it will have and a better idea of what this year’s tax digest is.
“We’re just living in times where we can’t continue to take seven-digit surprises and provide boys and girls educations,” said Schofield.
The school system currently has the tax rate at 17.67 mills. The maximum allowed for a roll-up is 19.31 mills.
The county handles property tax collection for the school system and, per Georgia law, is entitled to a 2.5 percent commission for those services, which it currently takes.
The tax commissioner’s office is looking to see what other charges can be assessed.
“We’re investigating, at the request of the commissioners, if there was an ordinance or something that we could possibly do something to the board of education,” said Keith Echols, tax commissioner. “But, we haven’t found anything yet.”
Echols said if the school board sets the millage rate on Aug. 6, as it plans to, then the tax bills should go out on time.
“If this is done next week, we feel pretty sure we’ll be able to get the bills out by the last Friday of September,” he said. “But if something goes wrong or if something doesn’t get advertised correctly, then we may have to change the due date.”
Lutz, when called for additional comment, said he’s “made it a policy not to talk to the Gainesville Times this year.”
It was his New Year’s resolution, he said.
District 4 Commissioner Ashley Bell said the conversations with the school system should be “informal.”
“I just think it’s a situation that we need to have informal discussions with the school board about it,” said Bell. “I don’t think it’s something we need to air out publicly and threaten with any sort of penalties at this point.”
Efforts to contact other commissioners were unsuccessful.
Nath Morris, the school board’s chairman, said a rushed millage rate would have been a mistake.
“I think if we had rushed to set a millage rate in June that we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now where we have more information and we have a better idea of where the digest is going to be,” he said. “So we probably won’t have as much of a roll-up as we thought we might have. So, if that’s the case, then we’ve done the taxpayers a service.”
The county must have its digest in to the state by Sept. 4.