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Posted: April 5, 2009 12:01 a.m.

How the budget process works

Over the next two months the Newton County Board of Commissioners will have to work with every county department to pinch pennies and cut the projected fiscal year 2010 budget by $8.6 million.

Budget Meetings

The BOC saw the total projected budget for FY 2010 for the first time on Friday. Over the past few weeks, each department prepared its budget for the new fiscal year, calculating the cost of existing services and new projects and looking for ways to trim expenses. During the same period, the county’s financial employees projected the county’s FY 2010 revenue, taking into account the expected decline of taxes and fees.

The county had its first budget meeting Friday, where constitutional officers and judicial employees presented their preliminary budgets. Saturday, the county continued this process by meeting with the heads from the various departments, including fire and planning and zoning departments. The BOC will meet with all remaining department heads at the final budget meeting at 6 p.m. April 13 at the Newton County Historic Courthouse. The meeting is open to the public.

No changes actually occur at these meetings, the departments simply present their budgets and the commissioners ask them a few questions. The entire budget is not covered, but commissioners ask about particularly large changes from last year and any costs which may come up or increase in the future.

For instance, the state may be appointing a new judge to Newton County’s Superior Court, which would add expenses to several departments. An extra judge would mean an extra courtroom would be operating most days, resulting in the need for extra personnel to staff the courtroom and handle the increased paperwork created by extra cases being heard. Because these decisions are made at the state level, county employees don’t know what will happen, making the budget process more complicated.

Work Sessions

After April 13, the BOC will meet and discuss the FY 2010 budget and decide which departments they need to meet with in more depth. These work sessions are where the budgets are scoured over line by line and the real changes get made.

Every item and expense is questioned, particularly in tough economic times, when the board is trying to save money anywhere it can, County Chairman Kathy Morgan said.

"The (department heads) come back and give explanations, and we make suggestions," Morgan said. "We ask questions like, is this mandated (by the state)? Why did you increase here? Why did you cut here? Can we have more details on this line item?"

The county will have around 10 work sessions depending on how long it takes to meet with each department. During most sessions the board will meet with multiple departments, but the largest departments, like the sheriff’s office, may take up one or even two entire work sessions by themselves. Work sessions are open to the public, but the public is not allowed to speak unless an individual makes a prior request.

The smaller departments like the coroner’s office, which have few staff members and small budgets, do not get called back for work sessions, because they have simple budgets and generally have few changes from year to year.

It’s also during these weeks that the county will find out if the state and federal government have added any more requirements or provided any more funding. Depending on which bills are passed, the county’s budget can change significantly.

Getting the state and public’s approval

Once the board has reached what it thinks is a fair, bare-bones budget, it must then look to see whether a deficit remains. If the budget is still not balanced, property taxes will likely be raised. District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing said the millage rate has not been changed during his time on the board and he hopes the county can continue that trend.

"I’ve said publicly that my goal is to leave the millage rate where it is and adjust the budget to meet the money we have," Ewing said. "If you increased the millage rate, it is a tax increase and we’ve worked extremely hard to keep millage rate where it is."

Once the budget is finally balanced, as it must be under the law, it is sent to the state for approval. Morgan said the state determines if the budget is reasonable by looking at previous budgets and accounting for the changing economy.

"If we’d been filling budgets of $50 million the past few years and then we filed a budget of $20 million, that would be unreasonable," she said. "Similarly, if we came in with a budget that was 95 percent personnel and five percent other expenses, that would be unreasonable."

Once the state approves the budget, the county holds public hearings in June. The board will present a budget "walk-through" and the public will have the opportunity to ask questions and provide input. Morgan said the county would hold at least two public meetings and possibly more.

The budget has to be finalized by July 1, the beginning of FY 2010.

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