STATENVILLE - About 30 concerned residents turned out for the second of three required public hearings at the Echols County Courthouse Friday evening to discuss a proposed 3.263 mill increase in property taxes, from 12.27 in 2002 to 15.533 for 2003. That proposed rate would increase property taxes by 27.45 percent.

One mill generates about $80,000 in Echols County.

Echols County Board of Commissioners Chairman Lamar Raulerson said the commissioners, in an effort to keep taxes low for 2002, decided to use reserve funds to help offset expenditures. However, since the county has almost depleted that money, they had no choice but to increase taxes this year. Raulerson said the county spent about $187,000 in reserve money last year. He added that counties usually keep at least 10 percent of their budget amount in reserve funds. Whatever money is left at the end of the budget year is used for this purpose.

The commissioners propose $1,771,923 in expenditures. However, they only anticipate bringing in $591,861 in non-taxable revenues, such as traffic fines and court fees.

According the county's numbers, the proposed tax increase would bring in $1,252,062, which would come from timber, mobile homes, tags and property.

During the discussion, residents questioned a $122,026 increase in the sheriff's department budget, from $450,669 to $328,643. The sheriff's budget is roughly 25 percent of the county's total budget.

Sheriff Donald Fender said about $150,000 would go to open the jail facility, and the extra money would go toward the salary, benefits, equipment and training for five more employees. The department already has six deputies, plus a school resource officer. According to figures in the sheriff's budget, salaries for himself and the six deputies and a secretary costs about $203,291, not counting employee benefits.

"What will the deputies do, arrest themselves?" was a frequent question from audience members who didn't see why a small county needed so many people on payroll at county expense. The jail, estimated to be open by 2003, would be able to house up to 10 inmates.

"We can run the jail cheaper if we have them (inmates) here instead of farming them out all over the county," Fender said.

He said that the Lowndes County jail, which is about 45 miles round trip, charges $43 a day per inmate. They also have a few inmates in Clinch County, which charges $18 a day. However, due to the distance of the Clinch County Jail, 75 miles round trip, Fender said in his proposal he's not planning to take any more inmates there. Lanier County, which is closer and cheaper than the Lowndes County Jail, doesn't have any room for Echols inmates.

Fender also told the audience that in addition to housing costs, Echols County must transport and pay for any medical appointments their may need.

Added to the benefit of housing Echols inmates in-county, Fender said, was that they could be put to work. Probate/Magistrate Court Judge Carl Rogers said he was completely in agreement with having a jail, as long as the inmates would be put to work.

Raulerson estimated that if the county didn't open the jail, it would reduce taxes by one mill, about a third of what they're asking.

Commission Vice Chairman DeVane Ritter was not at Friday evening's meeting.

The final public hearing has been set for 8 a.m. Nov. 4. The millage rate will be set at the regularly scheduled commission meeting, immediately following the public hearing.



To contact reporter Marie Arrington, please call 244-3400, ext. 254.



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