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Posted: August 16, 2009 12:30 a.m.

County budget to be cut by $1 million

With funds already tight, county employees pinch every cent

County employees are watching every dollar they spend. With the Board of Commissioner preparing to cut nearly $1 million more from the budget, every dime and penny will now have to be called into question.

"Last week we had an expenditure of $50, and I really had to have a discussion with a couple of people before deciding whether to pay the expense out of county budget or my own pocket," Chairman Kathy Morgan said. "We determined it was a county expense, but I’m thinking about every purchase order I sign and every dollar I spend down to the penny."

A glitch in the Newton County Tax Appraiser’s new software system resulted in 50 industries not being credited for tax-free Freeport exemptions on $85 million worth of inventory. The error was caught and corrected before any property tax bills were paid, but as a result the county is expected to collect $929,000 less in property tax revenue than it originally budgeted.

On Friday, Morgan and the county’s finance staff met to finalize a budget-cutting proposal to give to the BOC. A few details will be double-checked early next week and the BOC will vote on the proposal Tuesday evening.

Morgan said the budget-cutting process was difficult, and she and Administrative Assistant John Middleton literally went line by line, department by department, looking for items to cut, even if the items were only a couple hundred or couple thousand dollars. She said they also double checked the revenue that had come in so far to see how it compared to expected revenues, even though the FY2010 budget is less than two months old.

The county budget was already in a bare-bones state after the BOC trimmed $8 million from the initial FY2010 budget presented back in early May; an additional $929,000 reduction means county services are going to be cut even further. Morgan said she and Middleton tried to cut any areas that would not majorly affect mandated services. She said there is absolutely no discretionary spending left in the budget.

"As leaders of the county and as business people, we have to balance the budget. We had to go in and find those changes. That’s one of the things, if you take the budget down to a minimalist budget and take it so skinny, you don’t have a lot of room for adjustment," Morgan said. "But we are lucky. We think we’ve got a proposal that the board can accept."

The BOC approved a $250,000 overall budget contingency, comprised of money that went unspent last year — leftover funds from projects that didn’t occur and individual project’s contingencies. Morgan said the contingency will likely be used to help balance the budget, which means there would be no room for error.

"By taking the contingency piece out it means we have to check every addition and subtraction and pinch our pennies even more," Morgan said. "We have to watch every dime. Before we were watching quarters, now we’re watching dimes and pennies."

Morgan said county officials knew the appraiser’s office was changing software systems and increased the review process for the $3.26 billion digest. However, the large amount of money involved made it very difficult for anyone to catch a relatively small $85 million exemption error. She said it was important to note that the error was a software glitch; there was nothing wrong with the actual assessment of any property.

In the midst of the difficult process, Morgan said all of the department heads and constitutional officers were helpful and supportive.

"We had wonderful support from everyone. They understand the severity of the situation for everyone and understand how didficult it was to balance the budget," Morgan said. "This wasn’t somebody saying arbitrarily we need to cut a million dollars, they understood it could have happened to any department. They’ve all been cooperative."

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