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'The buck literally stops here'
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In many ways, last week’s hearings about a proposed county property tax increase were a rehash of a familiar local conflict, with the same familiar players.

You had county commissioners saying their hands are tied because of the actions of a previous commission.

You had members of Stop Taxing Our People (S.T.O.P.) indulging in talk-radio inspired gimmickry -- this time wearing leis around their necks to protest some commissioners’ plans to attend a workshop in Hawaii.

You had property owners who just last month received large increases in their assessments pleading emotionally against any further increases in taxes.

And you had Jeff Rayno berating county staff -- though more diplomatically now that he’s no longer a commissioner.

An added wrinkle this time, however, was the nearly eleven percent increase in collected property tax revenues above projected amounts.

But led by new chairman Pete Liakakis, many members of the commission doggedly held to the contention that despite the windfall in revenue, a property tax increase is still needed.

One meeting began with this plaintive question from S.T.O.P.’s Christina Taylor:

“We have this beautiful area that has a lot of potential. When you’re getting this increase in the digest why do you need to look at a tax increase?” she asked. “We have to do some gut-wrenching budget-cutting instead of raising taxes -- especially with an increase in the digest.”

Liakakis was blunt in his answer:

“There was a 10.87 percent increase in the tax digest. But that is not a sufficient amount of money to pay for the services we have to provide,” he said.

Liakakis laid the blame at the feet of a budget-cutting state government that he says wants to have its cake and eat it too.

“The citizens have to pay a little over $12 million for mandated and unfunded things the state of Georgia requires,” Liakakis said. “The Sheriff’s Department has to pay between four and five million dollars for state prisoners. Now, the county has filed a suit about that, and that’s now in the Court of Appeals.”

Liakakis pointed out that new state laws now require municipalities to pay for a public defender’s office and for indigent health care.

“We have to fund indigent care and criminal defense for those who can’t afford it,” Fifth District Commissioner Harris O’Dell said at one hearing. “I had a son who was killed, and those who killed him were defended by the Indigent Defense Council.”

Third District Commissioner Pat Shay -- like Liakakis and O’Dell a member of the new Democratic majority -- echoed the chairman, saying, “We’ve had a healthy increase in the digest, but the simple truth is that’s still not enough.”

Shay said that “there are a lot of ways in which the states -- and to a lesser extent the federal government -- are pushing their costs down to local governments. There’s no one downstream of us. The buck literally stops here.”

Shay said the biggest issue was the burden of handling state prisoners.

“If they’d just do that one piece, that would be huge,” he said. “Taking care of the prisoners who have been convicted in their courts.”

Though against the tax increase, Seventh District Commissioner Dean Kicklighter played his familiar dual role as good cop/bad cop. After saying that his fellow commissioners were “good honest folks,” he then laid into them.

“The millage rate increase proposal was in place before we received the tax digests. We received four or five million dollars over the amount we were planning on. Now it’s being utilized like icing on the cake,” Kicklighter said. “Nothing has ever been considered to be cut. Instead we’re here considering adding expenses.”

But true to form, Kicklighter -- a member of the previous commission under fire by Liakakis -- refused to draw lines in the sand.

“It looks like there’s a really good chance we can do all this using the additional revenues,” he said. “This may be the one year we could do everything. I think the county is in good financial shape. Blaming the past really irritates me.”

Acknowledging the division on the commission, O’Dell said, “I think most people who have been commissioners try to do the right thing.”

Referring to a front-page attack piece about the Hawaii workshop in the local daily, O’Dell said “It’s easy [to get the wrong idea] if you rely on information provided in the Savannah Morning News designed to make you pay that fifty cents for a copy.”

Liakakis also excoriated the daily, saying it neglected to mention that a large grant from the National Association of County Officials will actually provide funds to pay for the Hawaiian trip.

“Over the years, what we’ve done has brought millions of dollars into Chatham County because of all our lobbying,” he said. “It’s important to support NACO and what it has done.”

Another issue discussed at the hearings was the sad shape of many county facilities. Liakakis said the millage increase is needed to upgrade facilities left neglected by previous commissions.

“If you go to Lake Mayer, the restrooms are in atrocious shape,” he said.

Liakakis said the windows at the Old Chatham County Courthouse where the commission meets “are rotting and in bad shape. Instead of [the last commission] putting in a small amount of money -- around four or five thousand dollars --- it’s now going to cost the citizens to replace these windows around $200,000.”

The county’s degraded athletic facilities were also on the agenda. “There are potholes. Some of the buildings have deteriorated. There is no grass and there are rocks in the fields,” Liakakis said.

Answering citizens’ complaints that some facilities are underused, County Manager Russ Abolt, who supports the millage increase, said “more and more people will use them because they’ll have pride in them.”

Referring to the Chatham County Soccer Complex, Shay said, “The soccer goals don’t even have nets in them. Tens of thousands of young boys and girls have used these facilities, and their abilities as young human beings have been immeasurably enriched.”

Though in the past S.T.O.P. has been a formidable force, last week they seemed to have lost some of their mojo.

At one point, S.T.O.P.’s Taylor was actually making Liakakis’ case for him.

“We’re building a beautiful building that’s rotten at the center,” she said, referring to various county projects that went over budget, were shoddily built, or both. “Our infrastructure is not good.”

Not even the Hawaiian leis were sufficient to focus the S.T.O.P. crew, who at many points seemed more intent on complaining about Trade Center cost overruns and the Hutchinson Island Racetrack than any current county projects or proposals.

Even Jeff Rayno, known as a firebrand during his term on the commission, was relatively sedate -- though at one point he did insinuate that county staff might be hiding true revenue figures from the commissioners.

Crediting the Stephens-Day law (see sidebar) with Chatham’s recent growth, he said, “After that bill passed we saw an influx of people from Effingham and Bryan counties, areas that are now having real problems with growth and taxation.”

Rayno says his chief concern with any Chatham property tax increase is that it might “kill the golden goose of the increased tax digest.”


As we go to press, the Chatham County Commission is expected to vote on a millage increase this week.