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Posted: October 5, 2013 7:09 p.m.

BOC looks at strengths, weaknesses

Newton County commissioners took a fresh look at their home Thursday, evaluating the county’s strengths and weaknesses and looking at the opportunities and threats that could be coming in future years.

The meeting was the Board of Commissioners’ second strategic planning session, and sought to build a foundation for developing a true strategic vision that will guide the county forward and help commissioners avoid the yearly budget battles of late.

The board voted 4-1 in July to raise the millage rate from 10.91 to 11.54, but Commissioner Nancy Schulz’ motion called for the board to begin a strategic planning process and have a "goal of lowering the millage rate in two years."

Specifically, the board wants to look at opportunities the county has to bring in more non-tax revenue, so it can lower the millage rate without cutting services. Ideas discussed previously include hiring a grant writer, restructuring landfill and recycling center operations, and investing more money in economic development.

The board did not begin identifying specific areas it wants to focus on Thursday – that will happen at the next strategic planning meeting at 6 p.m. Oct. 17, likely at the Historic Courthouse – but it did try to evaluate where the county stands and potential future issues.

A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis is a common tool in strategic planning, and Jim Dove and Mott Beck with the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission led the board through the process.

Strengths

- The diversity on the Board of Commissioners, including backgrounds and work history.

- Commissioners want to work toward the same goals; even if they don’t agree, they respect each other and put a lot of time in the job, including meetings with constituents.

- New commissioners are showing support for projects approved by previous board (such as the zoning overlays called for in the 2050 Plan), and are moving toward being non-partisan, open and inclusive.

- The board has an opportunity to mold the county, including building out the 2050 Plan, which might not exist for future boards.

- The board seeks citizen involvement and doesn’t take county employees for granted; chairman holds chats with public, other commissioners hold town halls.

- Commissioners have visions beyond their four-year terms and have a willingness to move out of status quo.

- The county is making working with cities a priority.

- Public safety, including the sheriff’s department and fire department (strong ISO ratings).

- The relationship with the Georgia Dept. of Transportation, including recent efforts to get funding by Chairman Keith Ellis.

Weaknesses

- Level of communication with citizens; the board needs more input and involvement from a wider variety of citizens.

- Continued erosion of the county’s tax digest.

- A minimal retail base.

- Relationships with county entities that get appropriations (groups like the recreation department, senior services, library, DFACS, chamber of commerce, etc.); more reporting from these groups and a better sense of what the county gets for its investment are needed.

- Relationship with constitutional officers (sheriff, Superior Court clerk, tax commissioner, coroner, probate/magistrate judge, Superior Court judges, district attorney, etc.) could improve.

- Retention of employees; a lack of depth behind key employees and lack of a succession plan.

- Public misunderstands tax bills, including how much of the bill goes to the school board versus the actual county government.

- Overall technology (ex. outdated financial software that is just not being upgraded).

- Per-capita income in Newton County.

- One-year budget cycle; commissioners feel they need a rolling or visionary budget.

- Hesitancy to change.

- Shorthanded and underpaid county staff.

- Employees lack knowledge of retirement plan options.

- Customer service when dealing with public, especially response time.

- Public relations: don’t how to deal with and communicate information on controversial topics.

- Burden of current/future transportation needs (caused in part by size of county and many miles of roads).

Opportunities

- Hire a grant writer to get more state and federal funding.

- Create a new website to improve communication and help citizens (this is in progress).

- Abundant water supply.

- Take advantage of economic development opportunities, specifically Baxter International’s arrival as the first tenant in Stanton Springs industrial park.

- The Newton model of planning, including rare collaboration between government entities (county, cities, school board, water authority, etc.) and joint planning through the 2050 Plan.

- A major interstate, I-20, running through county with five exits.

- Remaining and future capacity at the landfill.

- Recreational and historical resources (including lakes, rivers, parks, plantations, etc.).

- Active filming industry.

- Four colleges in county (Georgia Perimeter College, Georgia Piedmont Technical College, Troy University, Oxford College).

- The Georgia Quick Start training facility being built by the state in Stanton Springs.

- Land available to recruit commercial and industrial tenants and residents.

- Market the fact that the county offers a homestead exemption.

- Market the county’s quality hospital (Newton Medical Center).

- Lots of churches.

- Population is growing.

- Liquor by the drink now available in overlays. (It’s hoped that this will aid restaurant recruitment.)

- Privatization of government operations (chance to save money).

- Turning county greenspace areas downtown into public parks to create a more vibrant entertainment corridor.

Threats

- Are the SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) projects that were approved in 2011 in everyone’s best interest, or were there pet projects; will this affect future SPLOST votes?

- Neighboring counties (also compete for industries, businesses, residents); Social Circle has been aggressive in annexation.

- County’s charter is unclear.

- Instability of the tax digest.

- Unfunded mandates handed down by the state (put strain on budget).

- Uncertainty of economy – is another recession coming?

- Maintaining a sufficient reserve fund.

- Judicial system continues to expand, and costs more.

- Uncertainty in education system: some of the latest test scores were not good.

- Efficient expenditure of tax dollars.

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