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Posted: May 19, 2010 12:00 a.m.

County may have to cut many jobs to avoid tax increase

If the county does not raise the millage rate, it may have to cut nearly 100 employees — a sixth of its workforce — based on early projections. Even if the commissioners do raise the millage rate to the rollback rate, from 9.73 mills to 10.9 mills, they will still likely have to cut more than 70 employees.
 
These preliminary budgets have not been voted on and won’t be official until late June. However, that’s the stark reality facing the Newton County Board of Commissioners, as they head into their second straight of year of cutting millions from the budget. Currently the county is expecting $42,843,813 in revenue, a decline of $5.25 million from the current budget.
 
Unless the final tax digest numbers come in significantly higher than expected, it would take a large tax hike to prevent a decline in county services.
 
Employees have to be cut, because everything else was cut last year, supplies, equipment and maintenance – a total of $7.4 million from the original FY 2009 budget.
 
“The only place to make cuts is personnel … we didn’t have anybody say we’re not willing to do our fair share. We would rather cut colored paper, pencils and ink, anything, rather than employees,” Chairman Kathy Morgan said. “Based on the conversations it could be 120 or 80 employees. We won’t be able to determine cuts until we know the actual budget that the BOC approves.”
 
Morgan said so many employees have to be cut because the county does not have many high-paying jobs.
 
With three small exceptions, every department would receive significant cuts. Most departments would be cut by 14.5 percent, like information systems, human resources, the tax assessors’ office and animal control.
 
All court offices, including superior court, district attorney, juvenile court and the public defender’s office would receive 14 percent cuts. The sheriff’s office would receive a 13 percent cut.
 
Morgan said these cuts were based on the requests by commissioners, who said they wanted every department to be cut as equally as possible. Many employees also submitted suggestions about how to make cuts.
 
“We tried to impact departments as minimally as possible. If you have a department completed under the BOC or state charter everybody has a job to do and set of services they have to provide. We’ve tried to impact that as little as we could. It was a balancing act for us, trying to not hit any one department harder than others,” she said. “But every citizen will be impacted by the reduced services of the county. If we cut 100 jobs that would be a huge impact.”
 
Morgan said no services have been deleted entirely, but services will be less efficient. It may take longer to get a tag or have a pothole repaired.
 
“We may literally have to say it will be two weeks before work gets done. It is what it is,” she said. “This is just the economic times telling us we cant provide 100 percent quality service, but can we provide effective service at 75 or 85 percent.”
 
One of the problems with cutting so many employees is the potential unemployment benefits that would have to be paid. If 100 positions are cut, the county could have to pay a maximum of $1.71 million in unemployment benefits during FY 2011. If the unemployment benefit period is extended to two years that would be another $1.71 million for FY 2012.
 
The county has approximately 610 positions in the budget, though some of them have already been left vacant, Morgan said.
If the rollback rate was instituted, which is not considered a tax increase under state law, then the county would expect to collect $2.76 million in additional revenue. The rollback rate is the tax rate which would bring in the same amount of revenue as the year before.
 
This rollback rate could still change depending on the final tax digest. If home values decrease more than expected, 10.9 mills would bring in less money.
 
In their proposal to the board, Morgan and Administrative Assistant John Middleton proposed putting most of the $2.76 million back into the court system departments and law enforcement. Morgan said that when services are cut in these departments, they affect other departments and add costs down the line. Criminals remain in the system longer, which costs money, and the jail becomes overcrowded, which can cost money.
 
“We determined that would be the best use of those dollars. None of this is a good decision,” she said. “John and I have literally spent hours and hours going through each line -- ‘How do we do this and how do we do it fairly?’”
 
Regardless of whether a rollback rate is adopted, Morgan said she is planning to consolidate the engineering and water resources department into public works or planning and zoning. This will help save on utility costs by limiting the use of certain rooms and buildings.
 
Other considerations, include not opening the new Porter Memorial Branch Library this fiscal year, which would save $300,000. The library was scheduled to be completed in December or January, but Morgan said at a recent budget workshop, the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia recommended that governments temporarily delay opening newly built buildings.
 
District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons, whose district houses the library, said at Tuesday’s budget work session that he thought the library should be opened and simply have it’s budget reduced.
 
Public works received a 12.2 percent decrease, but this will be even greater considering it may be assimilating reduced engineering and water resources departments. Morgan said the county has $5 million of 2005 SPLOST money remaining, which will be used to help repair roads. Even with the extra money the county won’t be able to make sufficient road repairs, but the economy dictates that fact.
 
At next Monday’s work session, scheduled at 6 p.m. at the Historic Courthouse, District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz asked to see budgets assuming a 10 mill and 10.3 mill property tax rate.
 
District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson again brought up the possibility of selling the landfill to a private company and said he has requested that information in the past. Morgan said the county is working on the request, but it will take several months to gather all the necessary information. District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing said for the record, he was against the idea. 

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