The Forsyth County Board of Education heard from several community members concerned about the district’s proposed budget and millage rate during its regular meeting and hearings held on Tuesday, June 21.
BOE members passed the tentative budget and millage rate in May, proposing a $578,498,654 budget — an increase of about $58.4 million from this past year that will help to staff New Hope Elementary and provide competitive salary increases to employees.
They also proposed keeping the operating millage rate of 17.3 mills the same for the eighth consecutive year and lowering the debt services millage rate by a full mill, from 2.418 to 1.418.
The operating millage rate helps to cover the district’s day-to-day expenses while the debt services rate helps to pay off debt payments approved by the county’s voters.
Despite the lowered debt services millage rate, eight community members spoke to the board on Tuesday, voicing concerns about rising tax rates as property values spike across metro Atlanta and the U.S.
What homeowners had to say
Homeowners Brian Martin and Ryan Discher said they were shocked to see how high their property values rose when they got their property assessment notices in the mail this year. Along with rising inflation causing price hikes in grocery stores and at the gas pump, they said they wonder how they will be able to pay the rising property taxes.
“I've talked to my neighbors,” Discher said. “They're sitting at their kitchen table, trying to figure out what to do. I'm one of them. How do I pay for this 18% in tax increase? Do I pull my kids out of schools? Cancel our annual vacation where we make family memories? Cut back dramatically on our grocery bill despite inflation? These are questions residents across the county are asking.”
In a news release from earlier this month, Forsyth County Chief Appraiser Mary Kirkpatrick said the property assessments mailed out are based on fair market property values, which have risen by 18 to 20% over the last year. Most of these increases will go to Forsyth County Schools.
Of the overall tax digest, Kirkpatrick said 63% goes to school maintenance and operations, 17% to county maintenance and operations, 9% to school bonds, 8% to the county fire department and 3% to the county bond.
“My home, by its appraisal and assessment, has gone from $572,000 in 2020 to an estimated $856,000 in 2022,” Martin said. “My tax bill [went] from over $6,000 to now almost $9,000. It's almost a mortgage payment by itself.”
County and district officials have emphasized, however, that the property assessment notices community members received in the mail are not bills. The dollar amount shown on the assessment is an estimate based on the previous year’s millage rate.
FCS spokesperson Jennifer Caracciolo said if the proposed change to the debt services millage rate is approved, property owners will see a decrease in that price when bills are sent out later this year.
Another speaker at Tuesday’s hearing, Jessi Haggberg, said the district and county have not been clear to property owners about what their final tax bills will look like, making it difficult for community members to speak out when they aren’t sure exactly what the numbers mean.
“I went to art school,” Haggberg said. “I'm trying to figure this out just by guessing and I can't get a clear answer. All I know is how much it costs every time I get that bill in the mail, and it makes my heart want to stop.”
Requests for change
Haggberg also asked the board to do more to ensure property owners in the county are not overwhelmed by tax increases this year by offering the option of a floating homestead exemption.
This exemption only applies to county and fire portions of the millage rate and works to freeze assessments at the previous year’s value, keeping it at that rate for as long as the homeowner lives there. But if applied to the district’s portion, Haggberg and other speakers said it could significantly help those struggling with inflation and rising taxes.
There is currently a school tax homestead exemption available to property owners over the age of 65, which grants a 100% exemption from school tax and bonds.
“You have to …. be smart about how you're investing and supporting the community by letting us vote on a floating homestead exemption,” Haggberg said. “If it's not a majority then it's not a majority but give us the chance. That's why you guys are here. To help us, not to hurt us.”
During public comments at the board’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Forsyth County Republican Party Chairman Jerry Marinich presented a resolution to the board on behalf of the local Republican party, asking for the exemption and for the board to lower its operational millage rate.
In it, the party states that they support pay increases for the county’s teachers and district staff, but they believe the district can do more to make sure employees and others can stay in the county they work in.
“The increases in home prices, rent rates and taxes, further complicated by high demand for housing in the county, has made the prospect of renting or owning a home in Forsyth County out of reach for many of our residents, including teachers, police officers, firefighters, young families and other residents of Forsyth County,” the resolution reads.
To prevent this, the resolution asks that the board roll back its operations millage rate by a full mill alongside the proposed lowering of the debt services millage rate.
“This rollback can be made while still funding the proposed teacher pay increases, balancing the needs of the school system and reducing the massive tax increase being imposed on Forsyth County taxpayers,” the resolution reads.
Marinich told the Forsyth County News that he presented this resolution to the board because he wanted to show the members that there are more than a few community members who are concerned about rising tax rates.
He wanted to make it clear that he and the local Republican party do not agree with the proposed millage rate and district budget.
“How do you maintain the inflation that’s going on in the country and then the property tax on top of it?” Marinich said. “Your salary isn’t going up that much …. It’s a burden to everybody.”
‘A lot to balance’
Caracciolo said that while property values are rising, FCS maintains one of the lowest millage rates in metro Atlanta, and the proposed debt services millage rate is being lowered back to the rate that taxpayers had in 2010.
District general operations are mainly funded by state and local funds as FCS does not receive much in federal funding because of the small percentage of students on free and reduced lunch in the county.
The general operations millage helps to pay for the district’s day-to-day expenses, most of which is spent on employee salaries and benefits. Caracciolo said the district’s proposed budget is increasing this year for several reasons, including:
● $23 million is set aside to fund 283 new positions to help staff New Hope Elementary and help support student enrollment growth in the county;
● $20 million will be used to provide 1% cost-of-living adjustments to pay scales and rising the minimum wage for hourly employees to $15 per hour;
● $5 million will be used to provide step increases for eligible employees;
● $7 million is used to increase employee benefits when pay scales are increased;
● Another increase in funds will be used for the rising cost in diesel fuel for the more than 350 buses and utility vehicles used for each of the district’s 43 schools.
District leaders say they understand they need to provide safe facilities for families while keeping prices low for taxpayers and, as the largest employer in the county, providing employees with competitive salaries and benefits.
Caracciolo said FCS is also the fifth largest of 180 school districts in the state, and no other county in Georgia has experienced the significant population growth Forsyth County has had in the past two decades.
This growth is one of many factors that Caracciolo said is out of the district’s control. They also don’t have the ability to use Educational Special Local Option Sales Tax, or ESPLOST, funding for general operating costs, they don’t receive funds from impact fees for growth and the county charges the district $7 million to collect taxes. They also have no say over rising property values.
“As a district, it’s a lot to balance,” Caracciolo said.
For more information about the proposed millage rate and budget, visit the district’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us.
The Board of Education’s next budget hearing will be at 5 p.m., Tuesday, June 28, and the millage rate hearing will be at 5:30 p.m., at the Board of Education building, 1120 Dahlonega Highway in Cumming.
During the hearings, community members are welcome to speak to the board about the proposed millage rates or budget before the members make a final vote at 6 p.m.