Chatham County Commission rolls back millage rate, adopts $231 million FY2023 budget

·3 min read

Chatham County property owners on Friday received their second tax cut in three days as the Chatham Commission voted to adopt a rollback millage rate for the new fiscal year.

Commissioners voted unanimously to reduce the millage rate paid countywide by more than 1 mill to 10.518, which will lower property tax bills by $1 for every $1,000 in taxable value. The board also sliced the millages for taxes paid specifically on properties in the unincorporated area, known as the special services district, and for those in the Chatham Area Transit service district.

The commission's cuts come on the heels of a .50 mill property tax cut approved Wednesday by the Savannah-Chatham School Board.

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Rollback against recommendations

The commission's decision ran contrary to county staff's recommendation to maintain the fiscal year 2022 rate of 11.543. Rising costs, many of them tied to employee compensation, led to the county finance staff recommending the higher millage, but commissioners, led by Chairman Chester Ellis, objected and called for adoption of the rollback.

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The rollback is the tax rate that would generate the same amount of revenue as the previous year. Increases in the tax digest - based on year-over-year changes in property values - allow for the rollback.

Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis speaks at a press conference about the county redistricting process on Friday, Feb. 18.
Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis speaks at a press conference about the county redistricting process on Friday, Feb. 18.

Commissioners hailed the decision to cut taxes at time when inflation has applied significant pressure to property owners' personal finances. The U.S. inflation rate hit a 41-year high in May, up 8.6% over the previous 12 months.

"I'm thrilled more so this year than any other year to vote yes," said Dean Kicklighter, the District 7 rep who has served on the commission for 22 years. "The news has been so bad out there, and Chatham is reducing taxes."

Inflationary pressure and a rise in property values led Chairman Ellis to initially push the county staff for a larger millage rate reduction for the countywide tax, which pays for maintenance and operations. He asked for 2 mills — almost twice what the commission approved Friday.

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The staff pushed back against that request out of concern over rising employee compensation costs and the potential for a costly hurricane evacuation.

"I drove them batty," Ellis said. "I pushed for those 2 mills and they said it wasn't possible to do it and still be on solid financial ground. We we have to be on solid ground."

Unincorporated concerns

The commission's adoption of the new millage rates Friday was not without heated debate. Commissioners representing Chatham's unincorporated areas, led by District 4's Pat Farrell and District 7's Kicklighter, objected to the share paid by unincorporated property owners into the countywide maintenance and operations budget.

Approximately $4 million paid by those property owners through their special services district taxes are funneled into the larger maintenance and operations budget. Those funds are in addition to the taxes those unincorporated property owners pay directing into the maintenance and operations budget through the countywide tax.

Dean Kicklighter is sworn in as Chatham County District 7 commissioner on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.
Dean Kicklighter is sworn in as Chatham County District 7 commissioner on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.

"They've been getting screwed over for quite a while," Kicklighter said.

Kicklighter proposed a smaller tax cut — 10.75 mills vs. 10.518 mills — that would have allowed for a larger reduction in the special services district millage rate to be more equitable to unincorporated property owners.

Kicklighter's proposal never came to a vote, and he later spoke in favor of adopting the 10.518 rate. He jokingly told a television reporter attending the meeting not to show video of his objections.

"Only we could screw up a great day where we are cutting taxes for all Chatham taxpayers," he said.

The commission approved a new budget of $231,076,357 along with the tax rate.

Contact Van Brimmer at avanbrimmer@savannahnow.com and follow him on Twitter @SavannahOpinion.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Chatham County Commissioners vote unanimously to rollback millage rate