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Posted: June 21, 2009 12:30 a.m.

County cuts more than 14 jobs due to budget strains

Other workers offer to take pay cuts

A sense of melancholy loomed over the historic courthouse and county administrative building this week as 13 county employees cleared out their desks and said goodbye to co-workers, friends and buildings they had called home for years.

Newton County completed its reduction in force on Wednesday, a necessary hardship in order to balance the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. A total of 14.5 positions were cut from the budget, with half positions representing part-time or half-year workers. Two of the cut positions were currently unfilled.

Morgan said she didn’t even finalize the list of cuts until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, because of the difficulty of the cuts and all of the rules and regulations that have to be followed when cutting personnel.

"These were not performance related at all, just a reduction in force. No one is an unnecessary employee, but we have to make very tough choices sometimes. Whatever you do affects individuals; we tried to minimize the effect as much as possible and also tried to make sure the service to the constituents would suffer only a minimal loss," Morgan said.

"There’s no easy way to say that, because I know we’ve devastated these people and other employees. It really pained me and each department head to have to do this. The department heads didn’t have anybody to offer up; they fought for each of their employees."

In addition, two department heads took pay cuts of an unspecified amount, and the county cancelled its contract with Automatic Data Processing for payroll processing and will return to a manual system, which will save the county $62,000. Morgan said the system wasn’t a good fit for the county.

The cuts totaled around $820,000 and after subtracting approximately $342,000 owed in severance packages, the county trimmed about $478,000 in total. When the budget was approved on May 27, the county needed to cut at least $400,000 in personnel costs, which was anticipated to be 16 full-time positions. The pay reductions and removal of the payroll processing contract allowed a couple of positions to be saved.

The severance package for employees gives them four weeks pay, and county health insurance coverage for six months if they had county coverage before they were cut. In addition, because they were laid off, the employees are eligible to qualify for extended unemployment and COBRA insurance coverage, Morgan said.

Morgan said the employees will be terminated as of July 1, but they were allowed to leave work immediately Wednesday, giving them

two weeks of paid vacation. The laid-off employees will be allowed to apply for any new county jobs that are posted before the public.

Chairman Kathy Morgan said the employees did everything they could to reduce the number of layoffs and help each other, including four employees who offered to be cut because they were going to be retiring soon anyway. Because the county does not have extensive retirement benefits, retirement would not have provided any financial incentive to being laid off, Morgan said. The early retirees said this would allow younger co-workers with families to stay employed.

"It just goes to show the type of attitude and employees we have here in Newton County," Morgan said. "The employees offered to make suggestions and sacrifices, like unpaid holidays. Each of the 595 employees that we had were willing to make sacrifices, trying to make sure their partners weren’t displaced. I can’t explain how proud I am of all the county staff."

Planning and Zoning had the biggest reduction, losing seven employees, with six being cut and one being transferred to another department. The department had been targeted for cuts from the very beginning, because residential building in Newton County is almost non-existent. After receiving a high of about 2,000 new residential permits in 2002, the planning department saw a steady decrease to 1,532 in 2006. Then the numbers fell off almost exponentially. There were 812 permits in 2007, 152 in 2008 and only 12 new residential permits in 2009 as of May 12, according to Planning and Zoning Director Marian Eisenberg.

Eisenberg said she had about 30 employees in 2002, 19 as of this year, and with a reduction of seven, will have 12 for FY2010. She said the public and business community will notice a slight decline in the speed of service.

"We are still going to be very much focused on customer service. We’re trying to get organized. Before, some days we would go out into the field and be in the office and come and go as needed. Now we may be more organized by going out into the field certain days and being in the office certain days. There might be a time where someone is going to have to wait a little longer to get a permit," she said.

Eisenberg said the department will do some in-house cross-training, so that everyone knows how to handle tasks like issuing and renewing business licenses.

The planning and zoning department had a couple of retirees among its six cuts, but Eisenberg said it was really difficult cutting the people who had small kids and families to support.

Morgan said the public would experience slight reductions in service or the speed of service from other departments as well.

"Even one less person will affect services provided by Newton County," she said. "It’s going to take longer to get things done and if someone is out for planned time off or vacation, you may literally have to wait for that person to get back. This will affect the quality of service for each of these departments, but there wasn’t anything else we could do."

Besides the reorganization in planning and zoning, the county is also combining the purchasing and finance departments. The combined department will streamline the purchasing process, so that a purchase order won’t have to get quite as many signatures as before, however, Morgan said a system of checks and balances will still be in place. She said an order would sometimes take a week to get processed previously and the combined department should reduce that time.

The other reason for the reorganization is that the budget must be looked at more often and more closely in FY2010. By combining the purchasing and finance departments, Morgan and Administrative Officer John Middleton will have an easier time tracking expenditures and revenues.

Finally, a handful of employees are being moved to different departments. The special projects department, run by Special Projects Coordinator Cheryl Delk, is receiving two more employees to help with the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, Denny Dobbs Park and other projects. Executive Secretary Kay Blevins will moved to the Water Resources Department to better use her abilities.

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he was disappointed that he didn’t have a chance to give more input for the cuts before Tuesday’s executive session meeting. He said he didn’t agree with some of the reorganizations, and believed that employees should have been laid off, not reshuffled.

"I was not going to rubber stamp anything that was just laid in front of me," Henderson said. "I would have liked to have been a part of looking at the16 employees they were going to lay off, plus who they were going to rearrange. It’s hard to support something when I don’t have more input."

Morgan said she always seeks board input, but because of the legality of cutting personnel, the final decision has to be made by the county chairman.

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