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Posted: February 27, 2011 12:30 a.m.

County discusses reduced budget, employee morale

Not only will Newton County's property tax digest decline next year, but the board of commissioners won't even know exactly how much until July 1.

County officials began discussing next year's budget at their retreat this weekend at Burge Plantation, and because of changes in Georgia law and a housing market that's still losing value, balancing the budget may be more difficult than ever.

Chief Tax Appraiser Tommy Knight said that property values are likely to decline by 7.5 percent in 2011, because of naturally declining values and the fact the state now requires all property to be appraised at the price it was sold for, including foreclosures and short sales. He said around 81 percent of all home sales in Newton County in 2010 involved banks, compared to only 60 percent in Walton County and 39 percent in Rockdale County.

However, an equally troubling issue is that Knight expects his office to receive more tax appraisal appeals than ever before, which means the digest could decline even further.

Senate Bill 346 was passed in 2010 and requires governments to send an assessment notice to every parcel owner, regardless of whether his property's value has changed. In addition, property owners have an extra month, until April 1, to file for exemptions, and an additional 15 days to appeal assessments.

Newton County reassesses every parcel every year, and Knight said his office has already been reducing property values to account for foreclosures for years. However, many larger metro counties did not follow those practices and the Atlanta Journal Constitution has been churning out articles encouraging metro homeowners to appeal their assessment.

Other deadlines have also been moved back, which give property owners more time, but make it more difficult for governments to prepare a budget.

Industries have Freeport accounts, which include the value of their inventory. These accounts contain about $72 million of value, and they can change significantly depending on how much inventory businesses are holding. The county won’t know these numbers until June 23, because industries always wait until the last day to report numbers. The county also won’t know which businesses have closed until around the same time.

Employee morale

The county won’t be able to reinstate cost-of-living raises nor reduce unpaid holidays this year, but Chairman Kathy Morgan said the county needs to find a way to "make employees whole again" soon.

She said some talented, experienced employees are being courted by other governments. In addition, the county has offered diminished services this year because of previous cuts.

Commissioners discussed ways to save money, but the dominant discussion Friday centered on employees, because personnel costs comprise 67 percent of the budget.

While morale is a concern, commissioners Mort Ewing, Tim Fleming and Lanier Sims said that employees should be happy to have a job.

However, Ewing said his priority is to avoid cutting more employees. Sims said he would like to explore some way to reward employees who go above and beyond their expected duties.

Both Fleming and Sims said that angry employees tend to be unproductive and cancerous. If new employees need to be hired, the county could benefit from increased enthusiasm and energy.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson said the county shouldn’t ignore the cost to train new employees and the institutional knowledge lost when experienced employees leave.

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