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Posted: June 10, 2014 10:00 p.m.

County nears budget consensus

County commissioners appeared to be close Monday to reaching a consensus on next year’s budget, agreeing to lower the millage rate (informally called the property tax rate) from its current 11.54 rate to somewhere around 11, a change that would save a $150,000 property owner around $30 a year in county taxes.

Commissioners discussed two budget options in depth Monday, a $47.25 million one that would be possible at a millage rate of 10.99 and a $47.71 million one that would require a rate of 11.225.

The consensus was to either go with the 10.99 rate or a rate slightly higher, maybe 11.1, that meet commissioners’ priorities. These include eliminating employees’ remaining five furlough days, upgrading the county’s computer software, adding a security system to the Newton County Administration Building to keep out guns and adding more books to the bare-shelved Porter Memorial Branch Library on Ga. Highway 212.

Either budget option, or one in between, would represent an overall increase from last year’s $45.95 million budget, including more property tax revenue – even with the millage rate reduction – as well as increased revenue from the one-time sales tax fee on new vehicle purchases the state implemented a couple of years ago.

The increase would be possible even though regular sales tax revenue has not been as high as county officials had hoped given signs of a rebounding economy.

10.99 rate

Chairman Keith Ellis kicked off the meeting by proposing the 10.99 rate, a rate that had not been discussed previously, but is close to the 10.91 millage rate the county had before commissioners raised it to 11.54 for the current year.
Ellis said the 10.99 rate would reduce total property taxes by about $1.1 million, leaving that money in the hands of citizens, who he said would likely reinvest that money in the local economy.

The 10.99 rate would bring in a total of $21.7 million in property tax revenue, which includes the taxes paid of land, homes, timber, motor vehicles still under the annual birthday tax system and mobile homes.

Combined with other county revenues – including department fees for various services, sales taxes and others – the total budget at the 10.99 rate would be $47.25 million. As constructed, that budget number included eliminating employee furlough days and upgrading the county’s software – a necessity after Microsoft stops supporting Windows XP.

However, it doesn’t include installing a new security system at the county administration building or providing books to the Porter Memorial Library. Those two items cost $217,665, $167,665 for the security system and $50,000 for books. There was also discussion of adding only $25,000 for books.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz suggested raising the millage rate to 11.1, which would exactly cover the additional $217,665; however, when Ellis suggested keeping the rate at 10.99, Schulz said she was fine if money for those two items could be taken from another part of the budget.

Using reserves?

However, Schulz and commissioners Levie Maddox and Lanier Sims all said they were opposed to taking any money of the county’s reserve account, which is around $7 million (it’s supposed to stay above 15 percent of the budget), though exact figures weren’t given Monday. The amount of money in the reserve account is tied to the county’s credit rating, which affects the rates the county gets when it takes out loans or sells bonds.

Ellis was comfortable taking some money of the reserve account, because the county is expecting a budget surplus this year.

Commissioner John Douglas was even more in favor of taking money of the reserve account. He supported the 10.663 rate – this is called the rollback rate and is the rate at which property tax collections for land and buildings would remain the same taking into account value changes (this year total property value in Newton County is rising, so the rollback rate would be lower to adjust).

Douglas said he wanted to use reserves to cover any necessary expenses above the total revenues ($46.6 million) that would be raised if a 10.663 millage rate is used.

“I think the reserve fund is there to benefit the county. What good is it if we never use the thing?” Douglas said.
Douglas’s argument is that anything besides the 10.663 rate is technically a tax increase, and he’s right according to state law. Even if the millage rate is lowered to 10.99 or 11, some property owners will still pay more in taxes depending on how much their property value increased in 2014.

However, Schulz said the board’s commitment to taxpayers was to lower the millage rate within two years.

New expenses

Several departments and other groups would see increases under the county’s new budget, with some of the more significant increases being:

- An additional $603,845 in personnel expense, much of that coming from eliminating employees’ remaining five furlough days (the salary increase is actually $1.15 million, but it’s offset from $327,804 in health insurance savings for the county)

- An additional $182,863 for the Board of Elections because of the General Election later this year

- An additional $46,000 to the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce to pay half the cost of the fairly new commercial/retail recruiter

- Ellis said six positions would be increased from part time to full time, but he didn’t specify which positions would be included

Employee raises

Officials also discussed whether they could give county employees actual raises after years of holding pay steady during the economic downturn.

Ellis said he’d like to see employees get a 0.75 percent raise by using the money the county gets from selling timber on property at the county’s landfill on Lower River Road. The exact amount of money generated from the timber sale wasn’t mentioned Tuesday.

Susan Gray, a visitation deputy at the Newton County Detention Center, gave an impassioned speech during citizen comments, saying her coworkers are being overworked because the Sheriff’s Office is constantly shorthanded because of constant turnover related to poor pay.

“I’ve seen people I dearly treasure leave because they would have nothing to retire on,” Gray told the board.
She said the quality of employees is being negatively affected both because people are dissatisfied on the job and because more qualified employees are leaving. And many more might have to leave, including her, because they’re struggling to pay their basic bills.

Earlier in the meeting, both commissioner Maddox and J.C. Henderson spoke about the need to communicate to employees that they are valued and that the board is investing in the county to move it forward.

Maddox expressed concern for public safety employees in particular, saying the board needs to seriously consider the needs of the Sheriff’s Office, fire department and emergency medical service. He said companies won’t want to locate in Newton County if it doesn’t have strong service in all three areas.

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