By Alton Porter
Houston County commissioners have downsized the amount they propose to raise the county's real property tax rate to be levied later this year.
At a regular meeting Tuesday, Aug. 22, the commissioners unanimously voted to amend the proposed ad valorem tax rate of 55 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation they set at an Aug. 8 meeting, reducing the proposed rate to 54 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation.
The successful motion amending the proposed rate was offered by Precinct 2 Commissioner Willie Kitchen and seconded by Precinct 4 Commissioner Kennon Kellum.
Because the commissioners are proposing a new rate, they are required to hold public hearings on the rate. They unanimously voted to pass a motion offered by Kitchen – seconded by Precinct 1 Commissioner Gary Lovell – scheduling the required hearings for Friday, Sept. 1, and Tuesday, Sept. 5. Both hearings slated to begin at 8 a.m.
Immediately before the meeting at which the commissioners took those actions, they held a public hearing on the proposed property tax rate, at which one county resident, who expressly declined to identify herself for the media, spoke out against the 1.6 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation tax hike. Last year's Houston County property tax rate was 52.4 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
In opening up the floor for discussion on the matter at the hearing, Houston County Judge Jim Lovell said, "We have worked on this some more (since the last meeting) and we are able to actually lower this proposed rate (55 cents per $100 of assessed value) one cent to 54 cents per $100 (of assessed value).
"We're proposing that, which brings us to only an increase of little over a cent and a half per $100. That's 1.6 cents per $100 of value."
The resident, who said she has owned property in Houston County since 2008 and chose not to identify herself said, "I'm just here to urge you all to vote against the increase. I'm retired. My income doesn't increase. I get the same every month.
"And I moved up here to retire and not to spend my retirement on taxes. This makes the fourth year that you all have gone up on the tax rate since 2013. This makes the third year in a row that you have gone up on the tax rate."
She continued, "And I'm just asking you, from a hardworking American, middle-class family, and that's enough. If it's not the county wanting more money, it's the school wanting more money, the city wanting more money. And now, the hospital district wants more money. I don't know where we're going to get it from. And you can't strap the taxpayers with all of it.
"I understand you have a county to run, you have expenses, you have employees you have to pay. I understand all of that, but you can't saddle the taxpayers with it – every little tax increase each year."
Judge Lovell responded, "Thank you for being here and for your comments. Believe me, we feel your pain. That's why we've been working hard to get it (the tax rate) down."
The resident fired back, "Obviously, I'm the only voice here – the Houston County voter that's here – who seems to be concerned. It seems like the whole county is either complacent or they're not aware of what's going on or they just don't care. They're just going to just sit back and take it. I'm tired of sitting back and taking it. I'm just here to let you all know that I'm opposed to it."
Lovell then explained, "There are several reasons why we have to go up this one and a half cents. There are a lot of unfunded mandates that are put on local government by our legislature that we don't have a choice on. They come up with some ideas and pass a law, but they don't give us the money to do it."
He concluded, "We feel your concern. We're going to work just as hard as we can to keep the tax rate as low as we can and still provide the services that were mandated to us to provide."
Kitchen added the commissioners are "not the opponent" of county property taxpayers, adding, "the opponent is in Austin and Washington, D.C." "We're the underdog," he said. "So, if you would like to help us, ... your voice needs to be heard at a higher level. We're the victims, just like you are. We take the blunt of the blame because we're mandated to.... We don't have a choice. If we say no to (the unfunded mandates), then we lose even more. So, the state has us under their thumb."
Kitchen said inflation in the costs of goods and services the county purchases also is a reason for rate increases.
He encouraged the resident to "take your same points you made (to the commissioners) and let those be heard at a higher level. And take some friends with you. We can certainly use more people than the ones sitting here voicing those concerns about unfunded mandates."
After further discussion, the public hearing was concluded, and the regular meeting was called to order. During the meeting, Houston County Tax Assessor-Collector Danette Millican suggested that the commissioners not reduce the proposed property tax rate from 55 cents to 54 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The county's property taxes are used to help support the county's budget. The proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1, projects $14.5 million in both expected revenue and requested expenditures.