BUDGET TIME: County leaders face uncertainty 7/16/2013

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 16, 2013

BUDGET TIME: County leaders face uncertainty

By Rupert Howell

It’s budgeting time for local governmental entities and several uncertainties cloud how much increase local taxpayers will be facing.

A 10 percent decrease in taxable property, re-assessment, conservative budgeting, and a one time payment will all figure into Panola’s taxpayers’ bills that are mailed in December.
Despite losing $200 million in taxable property from the tax rolls, Panola County officials indicate no drastic effect on county services.

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School funding may eventually be a different set of problems as school millage, the number assessed against the tax rolls to fund that budget, is capped at 55 mills for the school district’s general fund.

A curveball was thrown when LSP Energy claimed bankruptcy in February of 2011. Although property taxes were paid for the current and past years in January when South Mississippi Electric Power Association (SMEPA), a rural electric power cooperative, purchased the plant, that facility is now exempt from county and school taxes.

“All rural electric cooperatives (such as TVEPA) are exempt from county taxes but pay city taxes,” Bill Bryant , consultant to the tax collector’s office explained.

Tax Assessor David Garner approached supervisors last Monday telling them the county was facing a 10 percent decrease in assessed property value with the loss of the power plant assessment.

Postal cards were mailed last week to property owners informing them that property had been reappraised according to state law with the parcel description and new value included on the card and a number to call for an appointment for those who could prove their assessment was too high.

Garner told supervisors July 1, “I know we’re going to have a lot of people moaning and groaning but that’s how it is. The state says we have to reappraise every four years.”
Bryant explained that although figures used to assess cost per square foot had increased about five percent in the formula used to determine value, a multiplier also used in determining value was reduced from 1.3 to 1.

“The majority of (residential) property should be valued about where it was last year,” Bryant said.

But commercial property with large parking lots may see significant increases as the cost of concrete and asphalt was doubled in the formula used by the state and the cost of air conditioning per square foot will add to taxable value according to Bryant.

A few safeguards are in place to avoid devastating increases including conservative money managers at the county and school level including County Administrator Kelley Magee and South Panola School’s Financial Director Suzanne Covington.

Also State Senator Steve Hale is credited with brokering a $2 million payment where SMEPA will pay $.5 million to the county and $1.5 million to South Panola above any required payment to assist both entities’ transition into their upcoming budget years without the power plant assessment.

The school district used conservative purchasing and borrowed from their capital improvement fund when the power plant’s taxes were in arrears. The county’s expenditures were also cut back to cope with the non-payment, but 2011 was the first year for the county to receive money from the power plant as it was tax exempt for the first 10 years of its existence.

The school district however, received a pro-rata share payment in lieu of taxes and has used the majority to pay off a note that financed construction of South Panola High School.

Covington said with the additional $1.5 million payment from SMEPA, South Panola should be fully budgeted through the 2013-2014 school year. Her concern now is what happens after then.