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Posted: June 6, 2010 12:30 a.m.

BOC remains uncertain about the budget

Newton County simply won’t have enough revenue to operate its proposed FY2011 budget at the current 9.73 millage rate, even if it cuts 100 jobs and raises various fees.

Based on the latest budget estimates, including eliminating 100 positions and making other reductions in every department, the county would have a budget of $44.4 million, but revenue is only expected to be $43.5 million.

The county tax assessor’s office presented a finalized tax digest of $2.36 billion to local governments, down $481 million from last year’s $2.84 billion tax digest. In revenue numbers, the county is projecting to collect $4.68 million less in total property taxes than last year based on the current millage rate.

In addition, local sales taxes are expected to decline by $180,000.

As a drastic budget cut continues to loom, the Board of Commissioners received a sliver of good news Tuesday as revised projections showed $261,817 in additional revenue, mainly because of expected income from higher probate and superior court fees. The fees were increased by the state as a result of HB 1055, and increased everything from divorce fees, name change fees and fees required to bring civil actions.

If the county was to adopt the rollback property tax rate of 10.9 mills, the county’s revenue would increase by $2.79 million to $46.3 million. This would allow the county’s budget to increase to $46 million and save approximately 20 jobs. Nearly all of the additional revenue would be added back to the Newton County Sheriff’s Office and the court system.

Whether the Board of Commissioners will choose the current or rollback millage rate is still unknown, but on Tuesday, County Chairman Kathy Morgan essentially asked them to choose the rollback rate.

“One of the most important duties of a county commissioner is to consider the competing needs and interests of all the different segments of the community. We should also consider requests from constituents wanting new or expanding services like green space, advanced technology, or new roads while others demand taxes be cut or remain the same. Sometimes the very same people demanding new services are the ones asking to cut taxes,” Morgan said.

“I encourage each of you to seriously consider the rollback rate budget; this will minimize the disruption of mandated services to our citizens.”

Commissioner Nancy Schulz is the only board member who has publicly said does not support the 9.73 millage rate.

“I have some serious concerns about the budget that would be in place at the 9.73 and the impact it would have on the citizens of Newton County in public safety and the long-term viability of the county,” Schulz said. “I would like to consider the rollback rate because I feel the 9.73 is too drastic.”

Commissioner Earnest Simmons said he still wants much more information from the Board of Commissioners.

“How can we make a logical decision when we don’t have all the information we requested? I’m not going to lay people off, when there is a possibility of more revenue that we’re not examining. Let’s get all the information in here,” Simmons said.

In a follow-up phone interview Friday, Simmons said he wanted to look at a variety of revenue options, including raising landfill tipping fees, asking the city to contribute to recreation, placing Gaither’s Plantation and Factory Shoals Park under control of the rec department and privatizing the landfill. He said the privatizing all or part of the landfill could bring in millions of dollars and stabilize the budget for years.

“I don’t understand why we won’t talk about it; it’s the big elephant in the room,” Simmons said. “It upsets me that we’re not doing long-term planning. I feel they’re corralling us into these decisions.”

Republican commissioners Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming both said they didn’t see the point in delaying a budget decision further.

“I personally have a concern with the way we’ve been working on this budget since December. I think we can meet 12 more times and have new information every time,” Ewing said. “It appears to me we’re just putting off the inevitable. We know the revenues are down. We know (they) will be down next year. Next year’s budget will be a lot harder for the people around this table.”

However, the consensus of the board was to have another budget work session Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Historic Courthouse.

• In related county news, the county is raising its wholesale water rates by 18 cents per 1,000 gallons to $1.77. This is the second straight year the county has raised its water rates; two years ago the rate was $1.51 per 1,000 gallons. The county does sell directly to residents, but sells to cities and the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority.

The increased rate is due to various reasons said water resources director Karl Kelley. The county had to purchase carbon, a fairly expensive chemical, in order to lower the level of disinfection by-products, which exceeded legal limits earlier this year. The department also had to raise more money in order to keep its excellent bond rating.

“As an enterprise fund, we can only charge the actual cost of production; we are not allowed to make a profit. Based on our projected production volume, chemical costs and bond requirements, $1.77 is the rate that reflects those projected actual costs,” Kelley said in an e-mail.

• The county also updated its erosion and sedimentation control ordinance in order to bring it in line with state changes. One important change is that applicants for land disturbance permits now must post a bond, in order to ensure that the proper soil controls are put in place by developers. County attorney Jenny Carter said the change was recommended because of all the abandoned subdivisions that have unfinished work.

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