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Posted: June 3, 2011 12:00 a.m.

County job cuts not decided

Newton County Chairman Kathy Morgan is adamant the county needs a millage rate increase, but county commissioners are undecided at best.

Morgan said last week that not raising the millage rate could cost the county 52 jobs, because the county expects to collect $2.6 million less in property taxes next fiscal year.

Residents and commissioners wondered which employees would be cut, but Morgan said late Tuesday that the county has not created an actual list of jobs to be targeted. She divided the deficit by an average salary of $50,000, which equals 52 positions.

"I believe if we cut any positions it will diminish the services we provide to our constituents to a point of no return. We cut to the bone last year and have had to temporarily shift positions to fill voids that were created," Morgan said. "The board of commissioners not only have a responsibility to balance the budget, but we have a responsibility to keep our county viable.

"No one wants to invest in a community that is stagnant or dying, and certainly not in a community that is falling behind. We are at that point now."

Commissioners did not agree that the county was at the point of no return. As they have during the past two budgets, commissioners Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming said they do not support a millage rate increase of any kind.

"I have not found anybody in my district who is interested in a tax increase, and I haven't seen anything so far in the budget process that would encourage me to vote for a tax increase," Ewing said. "The best way is to operate within your income, that's what business does. Why should we do it any other way?"

Fleming said families and business continue to hurt.

"We can't continue to pass buck and burden to them. We have to continue to dig deeper, and put aside scare tactics that say we're going to cut services like fire and police," Fleming said.

All commissioners expressed the desire to see how much the county has to spend on services mandated by state and federal law.

Commissioners Lanier Sims and Nancy Schulz said they didn't want to raise taxes but had to see which county jobs would be cut before they decided whether a millage rate increase was necessary.

"The last thing I want to cut is the sheriff's office and fire. Personally. I think they need some staff in those areas," Sims said Wednesday. "As much as people want to think government is like a business, to a certain point it is, but we have mandated departments we have to fund and make sure are well staffed. We have to keep the level of service up for Newton County."

Schulz said she wants the county to remain financially healthy, which means having enough money in reserves and protecting services to protect home values and quality of life.

"We need to run a lean county, but sometimes we can cut positions and expenses in the short run that really create long-term paralysis for your endeavor, business or government," Schulz said.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson said last year his constituents supported a tax increase in order to maintain the level of service. They may be willing to do that again this year, but Henderson said he will not support a tax increase if there are also increases to fees. He wants either a tax increase or he wants to cut the budget. If the budget is cut, he wants the board to have more input into which positions are cut.

Fees have been considered for the recycling center, recreation and the library. Recycling center fees seem to have the most support, with opinions split over recreation and library user fees. Schulz had previously supported fees to use the internet service, but she said after some research that could make the county ineligible for some state funding.

The county employs 617, of whom 560 are full-time, according to the payroll department. The county cut 14.5 positions in 2009 and around 50 in 2010.

Assuming property values declined by 10 percent this year and that the county adopts the rollback rate, a resident with a homesteaded home valued at $150,000 this year would pay an additional $4.97 this year.

Commercial and industrial properties are not as likely to decline in value as residential properties, so assuming it held its value, a $250,000 commercial property would pay an extra $121. One of the county's largest industries would pay an extra $14,000, Morgan said previously.

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