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Posted: July 4, 2013 9:00 p.m.

Morgan: Time for long-term planning

The July 16 meeting of the Board of Commissioners may be packed with vociferous anti-tax crusaders objecting to the expected majority vote to adopt a rollback millage rate.

A new coalition of commissioners Nancy Schulz, Lanier Sims and Levie Maddox, backed by Chair Keith Ellis, will hold their noses and vote to raise the millage rate from 10.91 to 11.59, an increase of .68 that will raise taxes on a $100,000 house by $27 next year.

This raises the hackles of anyone who thinks taxes are money down a rat hole instead of the price for paved roads, emergency management, law enforcement, elections, libraries and recreation services, among other things.

State law says the rollback rate isn’t a tax increase because applying it to a diminished tax base doesn’t bring in more monies, but just enough to provide the same budget next year.

Adopting the rollback rate is more reasonable, say these three, than another 5 percent across-the-board cut to services and personnel or dipping into county reserves, lowering the county’s credit rating and raising borrowing costs.

Were I to write the headline that night, it’s not the rollback rate that would get top billing, but rather this board’s majority commitment to serious long-term strategic planning.

The goal is to prevent the continuation of more short-term Band-Aids to the budget. Strategic planning will break down county expenses and any duplication of services, identify efficiencies in service delivery and develop new revenues to relieve homeowners of the burden to fund county operations disproportionally.

It’s not as if strategic planning never came up at the BOC before, but the previous board’s three-person majority preferred to leave long-term planning to the Leadership Collaborative and to mend the budget annually with baling twine and gum.

They said the county couldn’t afford the cost of strategic planning, recalled former Chair Kathy Morgan, who with Schulz pushed for long-term planning.

Chairman Ellis had listened intently to discussions among commission members about the need to decrease the county’s reliance on personal property taxes and seek new revenue sources and efficiencies.

He proposed $9,500 specifically for strategic planning to be facilitated by staff of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.

Jim Dove is executive director of the NEGRC. In a letter to Ellis, he said items the Board should look at include transportation planning, solid waste management/landfill operations, Judicial Center expansion, reservoir construction, economic development, the library, internal financial reporting, energy audits, county ordinances and community centers.

Dove said solid waste/management and landfill issues are among a few items that should take precedence.

That’s definitely uppermost to Schulz, Sims and Maddox. It ought to be a revenue producer, they say, instead of a money loser — some $750,000 this year, according to County Manager John Middleton. Commissioner Sims wants to know why that contract hasn’t been re-bid in some 16 years when it should be every year.

Two and one-half years ago when he joined the board, he was stunned to find the county didn’t have a grant writer to bring in new revenues.

"Look at what the Sheriff’s department and the city of Covington have brought in with grants," he said. The new budget to be approved includes $50,000 for that grant writer.

Commissioner Schulz has touted strategic planning for the five years she’s served.

She opposed pet projects like the Ag Center for District 1 and capital outlays for District 4 in the 2011 SPLOST because of no long-term planning of their benefit and sustained maintenance. She wanted more debt service included instead.

"I said at the time we needed a strategic plan," she said. "We don’t need to just throw darts at the budget. We need to have specific targets, stabilize our financial solvency, attract more businesses and generate more county revenues. We can’t do that without a plan."

Maddox, the newest BOC member, said Morgan touted strategic planning to him while he was campaigning.

"And I thought about it. I come from a corporate background, and we always had a five-year-out plan for equipment upgrades and personnel, for example.

"I believe in my heart that Newton County is going to see economic liftoff in 18-24 months, and if we don’t do things differently, economic development will jump right over us and land somewhere else," he said. "We’ve got to get our house in order and find more efficiencies without more money."

The fiscal year 2014 budget also includes another $30,000 for the Chamber’s economic development efforts.

I say thanks to this board’s new leadership team for recognizing the need for planning instead of buying more Band-Aids.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at barbm2158@gmail.com.

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