Millage Rate Hearing Day Fraught With Drama; County Boss Resting at Home After Scam Accident

Dade County millage rate hearings tend to be dull affairs. The Planet strives to suck more drama from local democracy than you'd think was there from the outside but there is generally only so much even The Planet can do. Thursday's double-decker noon-and 6 p.m. hearings, on the other hand, positively sizzled with interest.

As usual, attendance was poor, with only four or five people besides the local press at the noon hearing and nobody at all at the 6 p.m. But in between was an alleged attempted crime that prevented the chief player at no. 1 from attending no. 2, because he was in the hospital.

Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley attended the noon hearing at the new courts facility, going one-on-one with such citizens as showed up to explain what was going on with property taxes and the millage rate. But he was conspicuously absent from the second hearing later in the day at the Administrative Building. Emergency Services Director Alex Case and District 4 Commissioner Allan Bradford explained why:

The county boss had been summoned to Rising Fawn in between hearings, around 4 to 4:30 p.m., to the home of Peewee and Peggy Payne. The Paynes, who retired from running the Glass Farm nursery and are in their 80s, had recently installed an elevator in their home. Now two men had arrived at the house demanding the final payment--$19,000, said Bradford--and the Paynes felt something was not quite right. They called Rumley, who drove to their home to check out what he suspected was a scam.

There, said Bradford and Case--Case followed Rumley to the Paynes' house shortly thereafter--Rumley found a man posing as a fire marshal and another who said he worked for the company that had installed the elevator. Bradford and Case said the latter apparently really had worked for the company but had since quit or been fired, but they doubted the other man had any credentials as a fire marshall at all. Case explained that the Paynes would not have made the final payment on the elevator until it had passed inspection by a fire marshal, and that was the probable basis of the suspected scam.

In any case, Rumley demanded to see identification from the men. At that point, said Case and Bradford, the men left the house and fled to their vehicle. Rumley pursued, and in doing so collided with the door of his own truck. "He was trotting to the truck and tripped and fell," said Case.

As it happened, Rumley fell against the door in just such a way as to strike the site where his chest had been opened for bypass surgery last August. He went back into the Paynes' house and found that he was having difficulty breathing. Alex Case arrived and called an ambulance, and the county boss was transported to a Chattanooga hospital.

Meanwhile, said Case, the two men who had apparently tried to bilk the Paynes had been apprehended and charged. "They're over in the Hilton now," he said, gesturing toward the county jail.

These are Jeffery Miller (left), 63, of Mableton, Ga., and George Allen Rutledge (below), 33, of Commerce, Ga. Miller faces charges of false statements and writings, concealment of facts and impersonating a public officer or employee. Rutledge is charged with being a party to a crime.

County Clerk Don Townsend on Friday morning reported that Boss Rumley had in fact been diagnosed with a broken sternum from his accident. But Rumley had been released from the hospital and had just called, said Townsend.

Townsend said Rumley was still in some pain--"mostly when he coughs"--and was under medical instructions to keep still, but was resting quietly and hoped to be back at work Monday morning.

Now. The millage rate:

The Dade County Commission had elected not to raise the millage rate for fiscal year 2019 from the 2018 rate of 8.484. But the tax digest had increased in value so that that millage rate would generate slightly more--$163,752--in tax revenue, enough to be considered technically a tax increase and to require the commission to advertise an increase in its legal organ, The Dade County Sentinel, and to hold three public hearings.

This is all routine stuff and it all happened last year. This year, though, there were two issues with the process. Issue 1 was discussed at the noon hearing on Thursday: The Georgia Department of Revenue requires tax increase announcements to be 30 square inches or larger, the idea being that they should be easily visible to concerned citizens. One of the ads the commission had run in The Sentinel for the past two weeks was smaller than that.

Clerk Townsend (right) said this was a simple accident and he didn't blame anyone. "I don't expect the media to read compliance guides," he said.

"They did it again this week," said Rumley. "That's what's odd."

Eddy Gifford, publisher of The Sentinel, was not present for the noon hearing. He did attend the 6 p.m. meeting, however, and responded to the implied accusation in Rumley's absence. "We got all the blame for this," he said. Actually, he said, the newspaper had just done as it was directed by the commission. "We followed all the instructions we got," said Gifford.

In any case, Townsend said at the earlier hearing, the state had determined that because the small ad was not the only one that mentioned the tax "increase"--it had been the subject of two larger ads and also a news article--the county could breathe easy on that one. "We actually went above and beyond with the small ad," said Townsend.

But issue no. 2 arose as a result of the flurry caused by no. 1. In going through Dade's figures, the state revenue office had noticed that there was a zero value in the blank for something called the inflationary growth report. Chief Appraiser Paula Duvall of the tax assessor's office explained at the 6 p.m. hearing that this figure had some eye-crossing relationship with the two tax valuation freezes that Dade along with some 30-odd other counties has on the books. "It just never occurred to me that something was not right," she said. But something was not, and that number should have been something besides zero.

So it was an error on the county's part, but on the bright side, plugging in the correct value actually had the mathematical effect of reducing the percentage of the technical tax increase, and, as Townsend explained at the 6 p.m. hearing: "If it goes down, there's nothing that will prevent us from certifying our millage rate."

Townsend confirmed this morning, with more brain-numbing columns of figures, that that was the case. The tax increase in the Sentinel ads--4.4 percent--was actually slightly exaggerated, and since the tax increase had actually been over-advertised no more hearings need be scheduled.

Thus, barring any other unexpected developments, high crimes, misdemeanors or acts of God, a corrected tax increase ad will appear in next week's Sentinel and the third scheduled public hearing, planned for 6 p.m. next Thursday, July 26, will be the last one for this budget season. It will be followed by a meeting at 6:30 p.m. to formalize the millage rate, and the budget process will be over for another year, which if Don Townsend were one to quote Shakespeare he would doubtless pronounce a consummation devoutly to be wished.

The Planet will duly report on the July 26 hearing, with any luck with less interest but at not so great a length.

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