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September 15, 2018 10:03:25 PM
A "perfect storm" of bad circumstances necessitated Lowndes County hike property tax rates for residents next year, County Administrator Ralph Billingsley said Friday.
During their regular board meeting, Lowndes supervisors approved the county's 2018-19 budget, which including a 2-mill tax increase. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
The county had expected much better fortunes. But a Mississippi Supreme Court decision earlier this year brought news that large industries such as Airbus and Aurora Flight Sciences are exempt from paying property taxes next year.
"A number of things happened this year," said Billingsley shortly before supervisors set the millage at 44.01 mills. "When the Supreme Court ruled that industry located on airport land wasn't subject to taxes, that was a $200,000 hit from a total of 21 businesses located on (Golden Triangle Regional Airport) property.
"Also, we went out in anticipation bought a lot of land near the industrial park to support bringing in industry," he added. "Three years ago, we got a grant and had to borrow money to put water and sewer on that land west of the airport. We have a $598,000 debt payment that begins in this budget that we haven't had before. There is some other debt service, again having to do with industrial development, that is hitting us in this budget year for the first time."
Board President Harry Sanders also noted supervisors had agreed to cover $300,000 in funding for the Golden Triangle Development LINK -- which recruits industry and retail to the county -- that will no longer come from the city of Columbus ($100,000) or the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau ($200,000). The city council defunded the LINK starting in October and instead hired a retail development firm. CVB lost its funding when the county's 2-percent restaurant sales tax expired in July.
"It was just a perfect storm of all those things happening in the same budget year," Billingsley said.
The value of the county's mill is $611,000, which means a 2-mill increase will bring in an additional $1,222,000 to the county. Supervisors also agreed to shift 0.73 mills from the county's road department to the general fund, money Billingsley said had been earmarked for paving projects the county does not intend to complete in the fiscal year.
"The good news is that, according to our projections for the next year and the year after that, we'll be able to go back to the old millage as more fee-in-lieu (agreements) convert to full taxes," Billingsley said. "Of course, that's just the projections. As of today, we don't know."
Fees-in-lieu allow new industry developments worth at least $100 million to pay one-third of the full property tax amount for up to 10 years. After the 10 years expires, those developments begin paying the full tax amount.
The millage set by the supervisors will fund the county's $46,828,203 budget, which is $382,979 less than the 2018 budget.
The supervisors also approved the school district's 2018-19 millage at 46.71, the same as the current year.
To maintain that millage, LCSD Superintendent Lynn Wright said his board chose to cover an estimated $2.5 million shortfall by dipping into reserves. The district also implemented a hiring freeze.
Some of that shortfall -- about $800,000 worth -- comes from what the court decision on airport property will cost LCSD in property taxes.
"I'm pretty disappointed," Wright said Friday. " ... We ought to be having more revenue coming in, not less. Yet in Lowndes County, which leads the state in industrial development, we are having to worry about cuts. Something is wrong with that scenario."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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