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Posted: May 22, 2009 12:52 p.m.

BOC at impasse over FY10 budget; Henderson to hold public meeting Saturday

Next meeting is May 27

Update, May 22, 12:52 p.m.
District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson is holding a public meeting between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday at the Historic Courthouse for all county residents to voice their concerns and give suggestions about the fiscal year 2010 budget.
 
The meeting will be rebroadcast on WGFS 1430 AM on Sunday between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Commissioner J.C. Henderson can be reached at home at 770-788-1994 or on his cell phone at 770-866-3621.
 
May 20, 12:01 a.m.
"Please join me opn Saturday as I want to hear from you," Henderson said in the public notice. "What are your concerns and what are your suggestions? What you think matters to me."
 
After a few moments of silence Chairman Kathy Morgan asked the board for an answer one more time: “We have to balance this budget. I need direction from this board.”
 
Papers rustled on the desk as commissioners shifted in their chairs. Another pause settled across the courthouse.
 
District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons had asked several questions over the past few hours as he tried to find a way to cut the budget while saving county jobs. But as the clock passed 11 p.m., he asked simply: “How can we get past this impasse?”
 
That question was left unanswered at Monday’s budget work session and the Board of Commissioners left the courthouse without a county budget for fiscal year 2010. The board tentatively set another budget meeting for May 27, the final day the budget can be approved on time without missing the appropriate public advertising and state approval deadlines, Morgan said.
 
The most obvious way to cut the remaining $4.8 million deficit is to either raise property taxes or eliminate county jobs.

Rejected Options
 In an effort to avoid those actions as much as possible, commissioners spent four-and-a-half hours 
searching for alternatives. District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson asked about privatizing the landfill, but County Attorney Tommy Craig advised against it.

Simmons asked about reducing employees’ hours, eliminating all overtime and mandating more unpaid holidays, on top of the 15 unpaid holidays already budgeted, but this would be illegal because the government would not be open often enough to satisfy state requirements.

Simmons also asked about borrowing money from the $8 million fund balance, which is the money used to run the government during the months of July, August and part of September, before property taxes are collected. Morgan said the county needs $4 million per month to operate and borrowing money from the fund balance would be a bad practice and jeopardize the county’s credit rating.

Options of eliminating merit increases and rescinding previous merit increases were mentioned and no conclusion was reached on these, so they may be looked into further. Simmons proposed cutting all funding for The Covington-Newton Chamber of Commerce and The Center for Community Planning and Preservation, but the chairman and Commissioner Nancy Schulz said cutting any more economic development initiatives seriously hinder the short and long-term health of the county’s economy.

Simmons also asked about eliminating official uniforms for correctional officers and Sheriff Ezell Brown said he would need to look into this further.

Taxes and Jobs
One option being considered is cutting appropriations to agencies like the library, the recreation commission and the chamber by 5 percent, which would save $190,000, the value of four employees -- assuming a $50,000 combined salary, benefit cost per employee. Morgan said this could be done, but she warned commissioners to keep in mind that most appropriations were already cut by 20 percent earlier in the budget process.

With only one alternative added to the mix, the commissioners returned to the debate of raising the millage rate or cutting employees. All commissioners agreed they did not want to cut any of the county’s more than 300 public safety employees. Simmons in particular said that crime was clearly on the rise and the citizens needed the added protection.

Commissioners Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming remained steadfast in their refusal to raise the millage rate from its current 9.73 rate. District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson wanted to raise the millage rate to its rollback rate of 10.308 because he refused to cut more than 15 county employees. The rollback rate would keep property taxes at the same level as last year by raising the millage rate to account for lower property values.

Commissioners Nancy Schulz and Earnest Simmons attempted to strike a compromise by raising the millage rate to 10.00, reducing the recreation commission and other county appropriations by 5 percent and cutting around 25 employees. Twenty-one of the cuts would come from the BOC’s departments and one cut would be made to the Sheriff’s Office, Fire Service, District Attorney and Tax Commissioner’s offices. These constitutional officers wouldn’t necessarily have to cut a job, but they would have to cut at least $50,000 from their budget.

Schulz said she was more comfortable with the 10.00 millage rate, because of the effect the 10.308 millage rate would have on businesses. Schulz said the county’s largest businesses could pay more than $20,000 in property taxes.

According to information provided by the county tax assessor, the owner of a $150,000 home would pay $32.37 more in property taxes if the rate was raised from 9.73 to 10.308. However, businesses would pay $22.80 more per $100,000 in property value, which could negatively affect very large businesses. She said saving jobs now only to have businesses cut more jobs later would not benefit anyone.

Schulz also made a proposal to fund district projects and economic development initiatives if any more revenue was collected than was budgeted.

The employees who had filled the courthouse were disappointed with the lack of a decision one way or the other. Board of Elections member Jeanette Perry said she was frustrated that the board wasn’t prepared to deal with the large deficit. She said as much as she would hate a millage rate, she would prefer to pay more taxes rather than see the county cut 50 jobs.

If the county doesn’t reach a decision by May 27, they may not be able to pass the budget by July 1, which would result in additional penalties and fines.

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