Hancock County

Why Hancock County taxpayers may get bigger bill

Sun Herald file photo

The Hancock County Youth Court has proposed another budget increase, leaving county supervisors with no choice but to consider a significant tax hike for its residents.

Supervisors are considering a 4.34 millage increase to balance the county’s proposed $24 million budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

The largest force driving the proposed tax hike is the Hancock County Youth Court. Youth Court judges turned in a budget of about $850,000, a 55 percent increase since the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Last year, supervisors levied 46.67 mills on county taxpayers. This year’s proposal would bring the rate to 49.01 mills. A mill is a unit of valuation used by governments for tax purposes.

State law mandates counties fully fund their youth courts, leaving county supervisors with no control over the court’s spending.

“The board has no ability to deny Youth Court any funds placed on the budget,” county Tax Assessor Jimmie Ladner said.

The only way to control it is through the election booth, but this is not an option for Hancock residents. The county’s Youth Court falls under the authority of Senior Chancery Court Judge Sandy Steckler, whose electorate base resides mostly in Harrison County, leaving those in Hancock County with little voice over the court that serves their children and spends their tax dollars.

Youth Court costs have increased every year since 2011. The primary reason for the increase in expenditures is the unusually aggressive drug-testing program instituted by Hancock’s Youth Court judges. The court’s stance on drug screening was a major point of concern for the Legislature’s PEER committee.

PEER — Performance Evaluation Expenditure & Review — issued a 100-page report in 2015 in an effort to shed light on Hancock County’s foster-care problems. It criticized the youth court’s drug-screening policy after determining it was a potential leading factor in the high number of children being taken into custody despite drug use having no causal link to child maltreatment in Hancock.

Despite PEER’s findings, the youth court has continued racking up drug-testing costs.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Steckler said he believes drugs are the problem in Hancock County and said the court must continue to protect kids from drug-using parents.

Other budget lines contributing to the county’s proposed tax hike are a 1.6-mill increase for debt service and a .77 mill increase for the Solid Waste Authority.

The county must finalize its budget by Sept. 15, and supervisors will hold a public hearing on the millage increases at 8 a.m. Sept. 8 in the board conference room of the Hancock County Government Annex.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller