GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) — Three major construction projects and pay increases for a dozen first responders are budgeted for the new fiscal year in George County.

Neither initiative will come from an increase in taxes. The county will operate at the same tax millage, 122.23, as it has for the last five years. With the state’s $300 homestead exemption, the millage equates to a $922.30 yearly county tax bill on a home valued at $100,000.

$1 per hour pay increases will go to 12 to 14 patrol deputies in the sheriff’s office to remain competitive with surrounding agencies. Starting pay is now about $16.22 per hour.

The increase will be paid for by decreasing the allocation for road maintenance. The district road budgets stand to collectively lose about $82,500 from last year. Road and bridge funding in the county has decreased by close to $1 million over the last decade, although some state and federal aid for specific projects in those categories has trended upward.

The Fiscal Year 2023 budget, unanimously approved by the board of supervisors Tuesday, begins Oct. 1.

Solid waste will see no allocation from taxes, but the board says it will have no effect on operations. Any allocation would have mostly been saved to gradually maintain and update the fleet of garbage trucks. Supervisors said the equipment is in good shape after purchasing two new trucks in the past year. 

The department’s typical two mills, about $330,000 this year, will go back to the general fund to rebuild the emergency reserve. The county paid $2.5 million earlier this summer to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. It came from the family of a man with diabetes who died in the county jail in 2014 after being refused insulin.

The solid waste budget still has $2.4 million to cover costs for the year, about $400,000 less than last year. Supervisors said they intend to reinstate its two mills next year.

Even with part of the emergency reserve built back up, officials say there’s little breathing room in case of a storm or other unexpected issue. They’re still waiting on a $7 million reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for expenses related to damage and debris clean-up from Hurricane Zeta in October 2020.

When it comes in, the money will pay off a loan the county took out after the storm in the same amount.

“We are in a tight situation until we get some tax revenue coming in,” said board president Frankie Massey. “I had no less than three budget requests that we were unable to fund. We just have to roll it into next year and hope things are gonna be better and I do anticipate that to be the case.”

The county’s total budget is $66.3 million, a $15.7 million increase from last year. Most of the increase comes from state and federal grant funding for specific projects in the works like a new coroner’s office, Agricola multi-purpose building, Merrill Bridge replacement and sewer lift station in the industrial park.

One mill this year is equal to about $135,000, up by $850 from last year. So at the same 122.23 millage rate, the total increase in real and personal property taxes received by the county is about $104,000.

“This is probably the lowest growth in millage in the 23 years I’ve been here,” said District 5 Supervisor Henry Cochran.

With new developments like subdivisions and the Enviva pellet plant, supervisors expected much higher gains for property values in the county. However, they felt like public utility property was gravely undervalued by the state public service commission and department of revenue.

“I want to get scheduled to have a very serious meeting with somebody at the state who can explain to me what happened with public utilities. I’ve heard little snippets here and there but it still just doesn’t add up to me. I can’t comprehend how they’re making valuations on the property,” Massey said.

Supervisors also believe the county took what they say has been an annual hit from the homestead exemption. The state encourages people to own homes by exempting the houses from some property taxes, up to $300 annually.

The state is supposed to reimburse counties with $100 to make up for part of the lost tax revenue with each exemption. The state association of supervisors says the reimbursement hasn’t been fully paid out by the legislature for years, even as the state brought in record revenue and approved a historic tax cut.