Newton County’s property tax rate increased Tuesday.
The Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to raise the millage rate from 10.91 to 11.54 and approve a proposed $45.95 million budget for fiscal year 2014, which already began July 1.
The official motion, made by Commissioner Nancy Schulz, called for the board to begin a strategic planning process and have a “goal of lowering the millage rate in two years.”
Commissioner John Douglas was the lone vote in opposition, saying Newton County already had one of the highest combined millage rates – when taking into the account the school board and fire and emergency management services rates – in the state.
Douglas questioned whether the board would truly lower the rate in the future, but Commissioners Schulz, Lanier Sims and Levie Maddox all said they thought it was doable.
The lone commissioner to change his mind from the board’s previous consensus, which was reached at a work session, was J.C. Henderson, who had previously opposed any budget that called for a potential additional fee to use the county’s recycling centers. The previously proposed fee was not discussed Tuesday, but Henderson said he supported the increased millage to maintain vital services, including public safety and the court system.
Similar to the last time the board voted to raise the millage rate, in 2010, the night was marked with plenty of dialogue and disagreement. The night began with a 5:45 p.m. rally outside the Historic Courthouse, where resident Aaron Brooks spoke against the tax, saying it would stymy economic growth by driving business investment elsewhere. He also said it would hurt everyone by increasing the annual taxes paid on most cars.
The anti-tax increase sentiment continued in the public hearing on the budget at 6:30 p.m., where all nine residents who spoke opposed an increase. The common themes were residents saying they didn’t have any more money to give, worrying about a negative effect on business growth and promising to remember Tuesday’s vote during the next election.
No specific budget cuts were suggested, but residents called on the board to make the tough decisions this year.
However, commissioners believed choosing to raise the millage rate – even with public opposition – was the tough decision.
Schulz said the budget had already been cut by $10 million from the time she took office and said further cuts would only jeopardize the health of the county, further cut services and put a larger burden on county employees.
She said she understood residents would have a hard time trusting elected officials will lower the millage rate when property values rise, but she pledged to follow through.
It’s unclear if commissioners will cut the millage rate if property values don’t rise, but commissioners did say they were willing to make tough decisions after systematically looking for more cuts and finding ways to raise revenues, which is where the strategic planning process will come into play. The first strategic planning will be the county’s mini-retreat on Aug. 16.
Douglas said the millage rate wasn’t lowered when property values improved from 1998 to 2005, but Schulz said boards in the 1980s and early 1990s did vote to lower the millage rate when values increased.
The board officially approved the rollback millage rate, a government term used to describe the process of adjusting the millage rate either up or down to bring in the same amount of property tax revenue from year to year to account for changes in overall property values.
The gross tax digest declined for the fifth consecutive year in 2013, dropping from $2.3 billion to $2.17 billion.
Some of the new items in the budget are $50,000 for either an in-house or contracted grant writer, an additional $30,000 for the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce for economic development and $9,500 for strategic planning. Commissioners said previously they hope grants and property tax and sales revenue from new businesses will increase.
Among the biggest cuts was a $90,555 cut from the Newton County Recreation Commission, as well as $129,000 in consolidations to the engineering and fleet maintenance departments.