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Posted: January 28, 2014 10:00 p.m.

BOC: Progress needed on tax cut

When commissioners raised the property tax rate in July, they pledged to lower the rate within two years, but six months later commissioners have made little progress on finding ways to increase revenue and cut costs.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners held their fifth strategic planning meeting Monday and talked about the county’s most pressing issues, including trying to cut the millage rate (informally called the property tax rate) and keep its promise to taxpayers.

Lowering the millage rate

The board voted 4-1 in July to increase the county’s millage rate from 10.91 to 11.54, a move that allowed the county to collect $1.16 million in property tax revenue it would have otherwise lost because of falling property values, according to an analysis by The News.

In her motion to increase the rate, Commissioner Nancy Schulz called for a strategic planning process with the "goal of lowering the millage rate in two years"; the board didn’t specify at the time how much it would lower the rate.

Chairman Keith Ellis said Monday he was ready to lower the millage rate this year if possible; the county’s budget cycle runs from July 1 to June 30.

Over the course of the first few strategic planning meetings, commissioners said they wanted to try to increase non-property tax revenue and they echoed those thoughts Monday.

One of the most popular topics early on was looking at restructuring the county’s solid waste operation, including the landfill and recycling centers; the recycling centers lose hundreds of thousands each year, while the landfill makes a profit.

Commissioner Levie Maddox who led the push on the topic early said some movement could be made in coming weeks and months. He said Monday the issue had been delayed because of a lawsuit surrounding the county landfill (the lawsuit was mentioned several times, but the specifics of the suit were not mentioned) but County Attorney Tommy Craig was ready to meet with him and Commissioner Lanier Sims, who will take the lead on exploring the possible restructuring.

The board bandied about numerous options, including:

  • Reviewing the current contract with Hilliard Services, which the county pays to haul off its recyclables
  • The cost of internal trucking, including maintenance costs on an aging fleet, to pull trash from the recycling centers to the landfill.
  • Having automated, self-manned recycling centers.
  • Stopping the collectiion of tires and brush at recycling centers and limiting it to the landfill.
  • Charging a fee to use the recycling centers. (This was originally part of the plan, but has not yet been implemented; commissioners did not really discuss it Monday night, either.)

The recycling center system was implemented in the 1980s and was ahead of its time, Maddox said; however, according to previous stories, the system now costs the county around $750,000. County Manager John Middleton said the system is only designed for around 40,000 to 50,000 people.

"The centers are valuable because they divert a significant amount of potential trash from filling up the landfill."

Middleton suggested forming a separate committee and letting newly-promoted Assistant County Manager Tom Garrett "run with it."

On a separate note, Commissioner John Douglas asked if the board should consider, as a last measure, pulling money out of its reserves to lower the millage rate. However, Middleton said that would only be a one-time solution, and the board had said in the past it didn’t want to dip into its reserves, which affects the county’s credit rating, which affects the county’s borrowing rates.

Two other topics discussed Monday could help the county reach its goal of lowering the millage:

Hiring a grant writer.

Going to a two-year budget cycle

Grant writer

Middleton said the county put out a request for proposals for grant writer services, and the county has received a couple of proposals. He said he wanted to go through the proposals with Commissioner Sims, as it was Sims’ initiative.

Middleton said he would come back before the board, which will have the final vote.

Sims pushed for hiring a grant writer as a way to possibly increase revenue to work toward the goal of reducing reliance on property tax revenue. The county set aside $50,000 for a grant writer, or to contract with a firm that does grant writing, in this current budget year. The county appears to be heading in the direction of contracting with a company to handle grant writing.

Two-year budgeting

Middleton and the board are pursuing going through a two-year budget cycle to have better long-term planning and to not take up half the year every year on budget preparation.

Middleton said his plan is to form multiple committees to study different parts of the budget; the committees would be composed of department heads, two commissioners, finance staff, and the county manager and assistant county manager.

Middleton said the hope is that bringing commissioners into the process earlier will negate the need for so many long, drawn-out budget meetings later in the year. Different commissioners would be on different committees.

Currently, the board has a series of public budget meetings in spring, leading up to the budget adoption in July. Middleton said the new format would lead to more committee meetings and be capped off with two to three public hearings, where the public would be able to give input.

Chairman Keith Ellis said in a follow-up interview Jan. 31 that the meetings will be open to the public.

Middleton said he realized the decision-making process will be harder because commissioners will be deciding on two years’ worth of funding, but he said he believed the system would be beneficial.

Douglas raised the concern of declining revenues going into the second year of a two-year cycle, but Middleton said the budget can always be amended and balanced when needed.

Commissioners said they wanted to look at ways to get the public more involved, as last year’s budget meetings were very sparsely attended.

Succession planning

With Assistant County Manager Garrett in place, the most pressing issue was already taken care of before Monday’s meeting.

However, commissioners agreed they wanted to focus on succession planning both for future county managers and at the department head level within departments.

Maddox said the board talked about increasing opportunities for employee continuing education and development, and he wanted to see that continue.

The county is still planning to bring in Dave Wills, a local government expert for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), to hold two work sessions in February for free to examine all of the possible government types the county could choose.

Schulz had asked for the work session earlier this year after Middleton announced he was retiring, because the county’s original decision to move to a county manager system and strip some power form the chairman was a contentious 3-2 vote that was met with some public opposition as well as the opposition of then- chairman Kathy Morgan.

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