The city of Fort Oglethorpe voted to decrease its property taxes via a millage rate rollback during its most recent city council meeting on Monday night, Aug. 14.
Like Catoosa County and the city of Ringgold, Fort Oglethorpe will roll back its millage (property tax0 rate slightly, while neighboring Walker County's property taxes are going up.
"The city staff recommends going with the proposed rollback rate for 2017," said City Manager Jennifer Payne-Simpkins. "The 2016 millage rate was 6.753 and the 2017 rollback rate is 6.632."
Georgia law requires that a rollback millage rate be computed by municipalities each year that would produce the same total revenue on the current year's digest that previous year's millage rate would have produced had their been no reassessment.
Payne-Simpkins says the Catoosa County 2017 net digest valuation for Fort Oglethorpe increased by over $13 million, a 5.24-percent increase above the 2016 net digest valuation. Of the increased value, 3.45 percent is attributable to new growth and 1.79 percent is due to reassessments of existing property in the city.
"The city of Fort Oglethorpe is blessed to have outstanding leadership," Payne-Simpkins said. "The mayor and city council are able to meet and exceed the demands of our growing community while keeping operating costs low. They do a great job."
The city of Ringgold has opted to decrease its property tax rate for the first time in four years.
After three consecutive years worth of increases, the council unanimously approved the proposed rollback of its millage (property tax) rate.
"We saw a slight lower amount of gross digest inside the city limits," City Manager Dan Wright said. "Last year our millage rate was 3.15, and the rollback would be to 3.11 mills. We'd be collecting $601,000, where if you left it the same at the 3.15, it would collect $608,000. So, the difference is about $8,000 of less taxes than we collected in 2016, which is a 1.3 percent reduction."
Although slight, the rollback is better than the over 16 percent increase the city has experienced from 2014-2016.
"The question before you tonight is do we keep it the same, which would actually increase our collection by .03 of one-percent," Wright said. "By doing that you'd have to go through three public hearings that we'd have to advertise and hold, or do you go by the rollback amount, which would lower the collection overall by $7,897, or by 1.3 percent."
Cities like Ringgold and Fort Oglethorpe assess property taxes based on county-assessed values and rates established by the municipal governing authority.
For example, the assessed value of a home is 40 percent of the fair market value (FMV), meaning that the assessed value of a $100,000 home would be $40,000. In a county where the millage rate is 25 mills, the property tax on that house would be $1,000 — $25 for every $1,000 of assessed value, or $25 multiplied by 40 is $1,000.
Ringgold's first property tax rate increase in years came in 2014 as the city approved a 2.9 percent increase in an attempt to recoup revenues that were falling as a result of the devastating tornado that struck the city in 2011.
An additional 8.5 percent increase followed in 2015, and then a 5 percent increase last year.
The ongoing dispute between Catoosa County and Earl Epps, Ringgold Youth Sports Association (RYSA) president, over alleged misuse of county gyms is nearing a conclusion after the district attorney has decided not to pursue criminal charges.
In April, county officials claimed they received complaints that Epps was running a separate league outside of RYSA. They ultimately yanked his access to the Poplar Springs gym while they sorted out the allegations.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) has also investigated Epps since that time. Meanwhile, dozens of Catoosa County youth basketball players associated with Epps' "Thunder" teams have been denied access to county gyms as well.
During Tuesday (Aug. 15) night's commission meeting, Epps and several concerned parents and players were in attendance to express their displeasure with how the whole ordeal has been handled.
"Let's put these gyms back to work servicing the youth in our community," Epps said.
"There's emotion in voice because of the witch-hunt that I feel took place based around the rec association and Earl," Dewayne Gass added.
Gass says he called members of the commission to voice his concern over the matter, but feels like it fell on deaf ears.
"I was laughed at by one and was told I drink the Kool-Aid," Gass said. "I don't appreciate that when I call as a concerned citizen. I'm proud to be a part of the county, but I feel like we need an explanation as to why we have GBI agents calling coaches, families, being told such things like there could be tens and if not hundreds of thousands of dollars missing from an organization. I'm asking this commission to let these kids get back to playing ball. All I care about is that these young people have the opportunity to grow."
Parents like Diana Jost say their children have learned a lot playing for Epps.
"I want my daughter to play for Earl Epps. It's been good for her and it's been good for hundreds of other kids," Jost said.
Elizabeth Forscutt said she's tired of asking the commission for answers and getting no response.
"We ask questions over and over and over. ... We never get a response. We go months with our children not being able to play," Forscutt said. "I called the rec director in April and he told me my daughter's name was on a list and she wasn't allowed in the gyms, and he told me that she was under criminal investigation. I feel like I'm in the
'Twilight Zone' right now. I really do."
Forscutt says she even wanted to personally rent the gym so her kids could practice and was denied that option as well.
"I was told I couldn't even rent the gym as a parent," Forscutt said. "I'm willing to put up the money to rent them, and no, we're not even allowed that because her name is on a list that she's not allowed to be in those gyms. Everyone of y'all are disappointing. Just let the kids play."
After more than an hour of comments on the matter, commission chairman Steven Henry allowed Epps to stand at the podium a second time to plead his case.
"I just don't understand why," Epps said. "It's been five months...five months of locking kids out of the gym...for what? It's sad. I think y'all went for me based on lies. There's no way around it. If it's not based on lies, then name the board members that came and said, 'hey, we want you to check this out'. All of them have confirmed to me that it never happened. If board members made the claims, then why weren't they questioned and mentioned in the investigation?"
Epps says the whole ordeal has been a bunch of drama over nothing and that the main focus should be getting kids back in the gym playing basketball where they belong.
"I hope ya'll listen to these people, and I hope this matter is closed."
The reason why commissioners didn't' respond to questions from parents is because they were advised not to per the investigation. County Attorney Chad Young did speak on behalf of the commission and summarized the events that led to Epps' teams being locked out.
"The Board of Commissioners is not charged with starting criminal investigations or looking into whether crimes were committed, but what you are asked to do are be stewards of taxpayer funds and taxpayers' facilities," Young said.
Young says the saga began in 2016 over Epps having keys and exclusive use of the Poplar Springs gym, and alleged the misuse and damage of the facility.
Issues were reignited with Epps in April of this year when damage was done to some of the basketball goals in the gym while Epps had exclusive access to it, and that he didn't take responsibility for the damage.
"There was damage sustained of about $600 to $800," Young said. "The commissioners asked that that property be repaired and the cost be covered by those that used the facility. In response, responsibility was denied, payment was refused, and the taxpayers had to pay to fix the goals as opposed to those who caused the damage."
Following that incident, commissioners demanded on April 25 that Epps turn over his keys to the facility. Young says Epps refused to do so for a couple of days before ultimately turning in his keys after Young's office threatened legal action.
As far as the criminal investigation into Epps' activity, Young says that was initiated by the Sheriff's Department and not the Board of Commissioners.
"In looking into this, it was actually Sheriff Sisk, who is responsible for making sure he investigates criminal activities," Young said. "He assigned a detective to look into this matter. On May 8, the sheriff met with the county manager and I and determined that he needed to confer with the district attorney about potential criminal allegations. It was the district attorney, not anyone on this board, who commissioned the full GBI investigation. The GBI typically, in my 20-plus years of experience, doesn't expend the resources and the time to investigate unless they think there is something worthy of investigation."
Young says the investigation is complete and that there's hundreds of pages in the case file that's available as public record.
"The GBI when it concluded the report, it didn't say whether they found wrongdoing or not wrongdoing. ... They turned over the report to the district attorney so the district attorney could determine whether there was enough evidence to prosecute a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The district attorney did not feel that there was enough evidence to prosecute a crime."
Although Epps won't be prosecuted in a criminal fashion, Young says there were several items in the report that concern the commission regarding his misuse of the facility.
"Mr. Epps admitted to the GBI in his interview that he ran separate tournaments for Thunder teams and retained the funds as his personal funds and not that of RYSA," Young said. "There were other individuals that admitted to the GBI that Mr. Epps collected all the funds for Thunder tournaments, and that they weren't sure where the funds went."
Moving forward, Young said the commission will decide how to handle Epps' alleged misuse of the facility. That decision will take place during its next regular meeting on Sept. 5. when it plans to revamp the policies surrounding how the facilities are used for youth sports.
"We want to ensure that everybody in the county has the same right and same rules to use the facility," Young said. "Hopefully, on Sept. 5, this board will adopt its uniform policies so everybody can go back to doing what they want to do, which is going back to playing ball where everybody can then operate under the same set of rules."