MOULTRIE -- Colquitt County Commission bit the bullet Monday morning and approved a budget for the coming fiscal year at upwards of $26 million that will require property taxes to go up substantially.

The small consolation for taxpayers is that commissioners made more cuts to the budget that will net a lesser increase of property taxes. Commissioners left the discussion table last week with an anticipated increase of 3.1 mills. Monday's talks pared the increase to an anticipated 2.84 mills.

Commissioner Billy Herndon was absent due to a doctor's appointment in Tallahassee, and Commissioner Luke Strong left the meeting before the vote, but the five remaining commissioners unanimously agreed to accept the budget. The board must ratify the vote at its next regular meeting.

"I don't think there was anybody sitting there that was very pleased with the fact we had to increase millage, but I think we were all convinced we had to do something, and it was time to get it done," Chairman Max Hancock said.

"I'm pleased we're not going into reserves, and I'm pleased we are not going to depend on INS. We did take the difficult way out of it and that was to go ahead and add more revenue on ad valorem taxes. It will get us back straight -- and hopefully from here on, once we get back on level ground with the anticipated growth in our tax base, we won't have this problem again," Hancock said.

The county has been operating on a deficit budget for the past couple of years. Commissioner Merle Hall said that was due to administrators' lack of experience assembling a budget. This vote was necessary to dig the county out of trouble, she said.

"I never in my life hated to vote as much as I did today. But it takes a certain amount of money to operate, and then you get things that are not anticipated that make it worse," she said referring to the county's unexpected loss of INS revenues and added expenses, including the creation of the public defender's office.

Marion Hay, as Interim County Administrator, presented several more expenditures for commissioners to cut that would have decreased expenses by $443,900, but most would have been sacrifices that would have hurt county operations in the coming year, he said. By the vote, the majority of commissioners agreed.

The commission did cut, as was decided last week, hazardous waste cleanup expenses for the Bridgeport Brass site and opted to cut $75,000 from $320,000 budgeted for meals for Immigration and Naturalization Service inmates housed on contract at the county jail. The board also decided to transfer the vehicle of the E-911 director to the county tax assessor's office to cut back the number of new vehicles needed to be purchased for that department.

Hay came up with revenue additions for the county that would shift the burden from property taxpayers. Projected revenues of $292,021 included new code enforcement charges and service fees. Electrical permits went up 400 percent to $100. Relocation permits, heretofore free, are now $125, and subdivision applications and reviews went up from $50 to $200.

The county will no longer install driveway pipes for free. Residents who live along county roads could purchase pipes from the county at a little over cost but get installation free of charge. Now, residents will have to pay the county cost plus 10 percent for pipe, $45 for an encroachment permit, $250 for labor and $125 per load of dirt.

Hall, however, is "not completely sold" on charging county residents for these services which the county has been providing free "since who know when", she said. Colquitt County is one of the last holdouts to do so, she said.

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