Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:
Rome (Georgia) News-Tribune, on handling state's sales tax issues:
Rome and Floyd County officials have been left high and dry by the Department of Revenue in its handling of a huge sales tax overpayment by an unidentified local business. As a result, there is an urgent need for remedial action by the state legislature.
This sorry episode began when the revenue department hit local governments and school systems with a July surprise "bill" of $4.5 million for excess sales taxes paid by the aforementioned business between 2005 and 2013. That included interest of $1.3 million. After negotiating a settlement with the business, the DOR in effect levied sales taxes collected locally in order to come up with the reimbursement.
Thus, all of last month's local sales taxes were taken by the state — except for a small portion of what was due the Rome City school system. It got $20,564, a whopping $450,000 less than expected. The county, its two cities and the county school system got nothing.
And nothing is what they got from the state revenue agency as to what amount they were due to receive and how much more taxes would be taken because the information was not provided when the "levy" was made. The Rome school district's chief operating officer, Lou Byars, learned what was due his system only after contacting state officials and getting voicemail messages. Rome and Floyd County officials likewise sought such information but got no answers. The City of Cave Spring is in a similar situation, losing more than $56,000 in sales taxes — but it has never been officially notified of anything by the state revenue department.
In order to make up for the county's loss, Floyd commissioners have voted to raise the property tax by 0.833 of a mill. The vote was as close as it could get, 3-2, reflecting the choices the commissioners faced — increase the tax, dip into the reserve fund or slash services far deeper than would likely be acceptable to the majority of county residents. It was a tough call, one that our officials should not have had to make. They were guilty of nothing, as we have pointed out here before, yet were not only forced to pay for someone else's mistakes but faced a punitive 12 percent interest rate.
To repeat what has been said on this page, the sudden, unexpected liability was bad enough for local officials to deal with, but the way the matter was handled by the state revenue department is outrageous. Leaving our officials in the dark about how much tax revenues have been taken by the state is simply inexcusable.
Not only has the DOR been unhelpful; it has added to the difficulties by not providing, on its own initiative, the information needed by Floyd and Rome officials faced with huge holes in their budgets. How huge? An indication of the losses is that in June, the Floyd school system received $745,000 in sales taxes, the county $658,000, Rome about $485,000 and Cave Spring $20,100. No doubt, the July figures would be comparable.
There seems to be little recourse available to local officials. Rome City Commissioner Evie McNiece, now a member of the executive committee of the Georgia Municipal Association, plans to set up a GMA task force from the cities to get the word out about the Rome tax debacle. That's definitely needed. Also in the works is a meeting with state officials at the Capitol, and we hope it leads to some positive steps.
It is the responsibility of the General Assembly to fix what's wrong with the state revenue department and reimburse our local governments and school systems for their losses. That's where our local officials and the GMA should concentrate their efforts. Fixing the problems and preventing future debacles must be a priority of Georgia's legislators. We intend to hold their feet to the fire on this issue.
The Brunswick (Georgia) News on remaining protected from West Nile virus:
Heads up, Coastal Georgia and inland communities. Health officials have reported the first known case of the West Nile virus in humans this year, this one in the metro Atlanta area. It could have just as easily been the coast, given all the recent rain.
There is no cause to be overly alarmed. No human cases have emerged in this region this summer, knock on wood, but it wouldn't hurt for everyone to remain aware the virus is afoot in the state.
West Nile is seldom fatal, though it can be to young children and to the elderly, especially when natural defenses are low or nonexistent.
The first defensive measure should be to check around residential yards and business lawns for anything that's catching water or allowing it to pool. Water in bird baths, for example, that has not been changed or refreshed for a long period of time can easily become stagnant and turn out to be an excellent breeding environment for biting mosquitoes, including those that transmit the virus.
Don't harbor them, not even unintentionally. The company contracted to eradicate mosquitoes by Glynn County is doing a fine job, but every little bit residents can do to control this unwanted population is helpful.
There are other measures residents can take to protect themselves, like planning outdoor activities after the early morning hours and before early evening. Both are feeding times for the mosquito, when adults working in the yard or children playing are most likely to be bitten by the insects.
Those who do venture outdoors should wear long sleeves and apply an insect repellent with DEET to exposed skin.
Call county customer service if mosquitoes are a problem in a particular area. There's a good chance a new hatch out has occurred, and the sooner the problem is reported, the sooner it can be resolved and the safer everyone in the neighborhood will be.
Macon (Georgia) Telegraph on state's Governor's Education Reform Commission:
A new school year has begun. Smiling kids are skipping off to school for new adventures in learning. Refreshed teachers have their classrooms decorated to invite their bright-eyed students inside.
The enthusiasm is palpable. Superintendents are making their rounds in their districts, and even the state superintendent is visiting school systems all across the state. With all this joy, it's hard to fathom the tsunami that might be headed toward the state's education system.
The unsuspecting teachers are on the beach, and it is unlikely alarms will be sounded before it's too late to escape. The funding committee of the Governor's Education Reform Commission is meeting to discuss the height and power of the wave that will hit teachers as they toil in their classrooms.
One proposal would base veteran teacher pay much as it's done now on training and experience, but would give districts the flexibility to pay new teachers on a different scale of the district's choosing.
Another proposal being considered — this one foisted by the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget — would take the state's average pay, currently at about $51,000, and multiply it by the number of teachers in each district. Some districts would get more money — those that spend less than the average — and some would need a supplement because they spend more than the average. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, the supplement would come from a pool of $88 million.
Here's the issue. The state has never lived up to its education promises. This process is designed to save money, and no matter what this commission decides, it is the governor's process and it has to go through legislative approval, which he controls. He already has shown his hand when his office said there was no proof that experience or advanced education had any impact on education outcomes.
The commission will turn over its suggestions by December. That will be too late for the 2016 General Assembly, but in 2017, teachers better be aware and beware. If the state lowers its funding, it will be up to local taxpayers to pick up the slack. As always, the state will try to avoid getting blamed for the tax increases it is responsible for creating. If teacher salaries are significantly lowered and credit for experience and further education is no longer recognized on their pay stubs, the giant sucking sound we'll all hear is the state's education system going down the drain.
Fact is, one of the best reforms the commission could recommend is to fully fund the 30-year-old Quality Basic Education Act.