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Posted: June 11, 2013 9:02 p.m.

Public weighs in on county budget

Chairman Keith Ellis asked for public feedback as officials seek ways to balance next year’s budget, and residents responded, calling and stopping by his office Monday asking questions and offering their perspectives.

Newton County residents asked some of the usual questions Monday, trying to see if the county could cut spending for another year instead of raising the millage, or property tax, rate.

“‘Is there money that can be cut somewhere?’ ‘We’re looking,’” Ellis said Tuesday, replaying some of his conversations. “‘Is there a fair way to cut (money from) departments?’ We’re looking at those options, too.’”

As for the county commissioners, they remain divided on the budget and how to move forward, including questions about whether to raise the millage rate, so a seventh budget work session is scheduled for 7 p.m., Thursday at the Historic Courthouse.

“I think we’re still pretty far apart on some of the issues, some of the line items. But I’m certain they’ll come through before the end of this month,” Ellis said.

Ellis said commissioners have been sending him questions as well, asking about anticipated sales tax revenue — if that comes in higher than expected it could reduce the need to raise the property tax rate — and asking what would happen if the county eliminated three furlough days for county employees instead of the originally proposed five. If reinstating five working days costs $398,815 in wages, taking two of the days away would presumably save $159,526.

“Those are the kind of things being posed to me,” Ellis said. “It’s just a terrible shortfall. We’re responsible for delivering services and doing them well. We’re all concerned about employees and service delivery and also trying to run the county in a businesslike manner, which at least a few of us campaigned (specifically) to do, and doing that in difficult economic times is a challenge.”

Ellis said residents are split on what to do, just like commissioners.

When told about employees’ still having 10 furlough days and no raises in years, some residents are sympathetic and some don’t care, Ellis said. When it comes to property taxes, some see an increase — $27 for a home valued at $100,000, assuming its value stayed the same this year — as being fairly small, while others are adamantly against it.

Some people asked questions about specific employees, which Ellis said he couldn’t answer.

One person supported the idea of charging for a sticker to use the county’s recycling centers instead of raising the millage rate, because if the millage rate is raised “it will never go down,” the person argued.

According to previous budget documents, the county is budgeting to collect $354,063 from a proposed “solid waste user fee,” the form of which has not yet been decided but could be an optional sticker residents would need to buy to use the county recycling center. However, both budgets, including the one with a proposed millage rate increase, include the user fee in its revenue projections.

Ellis said he’s going through every line item, and already has a plan for one small shortfall. Gaither’s Plantation, a county-owned property with historic buildings off Davis Ford Road, is on pace to lose about $27,000 this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Ellis said the county is planning to rent out the property’s approximately 150-acres of pasture to a cow farmer for around $3,000 a year, which will not only bring in revenue but reduce expenses for mowing and fertilizer. The county will advertise the rental property in The News for the next couple of weeks.
Officials also will try to promote the property’s availability more to be rented for events and weddings.

Ellis said it’s a small item, but he’s going line by line to find whatever he can. In fact, since he’s only been on the job five months, he said he’ll go line by line through the budget even after it’s approved.

“I don’t think there’s anything left, but I want to prove it to myself. I want to make sure I do my homework and make sure every taxpayer has eyes looking out for them,” Ellis said.

And if residents have more ideas, they can still reach out to Ellis, either via email at kellis@co.newton.ga.us or by phone or in person by calling administrative assistant Hosanna Fletcher at 678-625-1225.

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