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Activity ramps up for county tax vote
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Robocalls and rallies are back in Newton County, precursors to the potentially contentious county budget vote looming Tuesday.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners is set to vote on the 2013-2014 budget and millage rate Tuesday night, and with a majority of commissioners previously reaching an informal consensus to raise the millage rate, tax hike protesters are making a last push to make their voices heard.

The county is holding a public hearing on a proposed $45.95 million budget— which would require the millage rate to be upped from 10.91 to 11.59 —at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Historic Courthouse. Chairman Keith Ellis said he will set the time limit for speakers during the public hearing based on how many people express an interest in speaking.

There also will be a public comment portion as normal during the regularly scheduled board meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Although citizens are normally given 3 minutes to speak, Ellis will again base speakers’ time limits on the number of people who want to speak. Because the zoning portion of the meeting must start at 7:30 p.m. by law, Ellis expects to limit comments to 30 minutes as well.

A newly formed group, Newton Conservative Liberty Alliance, is planning a rally on the Historic Courthouse steps at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday.

Local resident Aaron Brooks is planning to propose ideas about how the county could cut costs instead of raising taxes.

"We didn’t find any huge chunks but found little areas throughout," said one of the group’s founders, Elizabeth Christian Allen, who noted she would also be going through a copy of the budget this weekend.

"We’re mainly bringing everyone together to show support against raising taxes," Allen said.

The Newton County Republican Party was also making its feelings known, sending out a robocall to county residents beginning Thursday night, urging them to contact their commissioners and express opposition to a tax increase. Local GOP Chairwoman Delia Fleming said the calls went out to thousands of residents at a cost of about $400.

"We’ve called and emailed non-stop," Fleming said.

The party has focused its efforts on Commissioner Levie Maddox, the lone Republican to tentatively support a millage rate increase.

"We wouldn’t figure out why he would support (the tax increase). We’re trying to give him ideas of where the cuts could be, other ways to go about it," Fleming said, noting that raising taxes was the easiest thing to do.

Fleming countered claims that the increase wouldn’t have a large effect on homeowners’ payments, saying it really hurts people with multiple properties and expressing skepticism the rate would be reduced.

As groups gear up their messages, Ellis said he’s ready to listen, and is preparing a longer-than-normal "Chat with the Chairman" session from 3 - 5 p.m. Monday. Residents are invited to come to the Historic Courthouse and speak to the chairman about any issue.

Commissioners’ thoughts

Commissioners Maddox and Nancy Schulz, who also previously expressed support for raising the millage rate, both said they’re open to alternatives but have yet to hear a better solution that will set the county on solid footing in the short or medium-term.

"I’m waiting up to this minute on a better solution," Maddox said. "Nobody goes into office looking to raise taxes, but at the same time, I want a better solution. I’m not sure that exists right now. A lot of ideas have been tossed out there, a lot of good and great ones from responsible citizens, but again, I’m not sure an unknown solution will hit between now and Tuesday."

Both Maddox and Schulz expressed support for planning to lower the millage rate after the county had time to look for ways to cut costs and increase non-property tax revenues. However, while Maddox supported a defined "sunset provision" on an increase, Schulz said she was more comfortable with a goal of reducing the millage rate within two years.

Schulz said she felt two years was needed to allow the county’s proposed strategic planning process to give officials an idea of where to make significant changes.

"It’s very simplistic to just say, ‘Let’s go across and have a 5 percent cut. It’s too simplistic. We can’t do that," said Schulz, noting such a bare-bones budget would leave the county in dire straits should an unexpected disaster, like a flood, hit.

If the county had to pull into its reserve fund balance, its credit rating could be jeopardized, which would affect numerous groups and cost the county and others more in unfavorable loan and bond terms.

As far as working on finding ways to save and make money, Ellis said the county is already working on multiple efforts.

He said he’s begun doing energy audits on some of the smaller county-owned buildings looking for possible savings on utility costs; Ellis used to work in the energy audit field.

The county will likely hire a larger company to do audits for the larger, more complex buildings; Atlanta-based Southface is meeting with Ellis next week.

Ellis said he’s also meeting the county’s auditors in an effort to refinance some existing debt, especially the expensive landfill note, which has a $750,000 payment this year that is part of the current budget crunch.

The county also is working with the Georgia Agriculture Commissioner’s office to find ways to boost agritourism in Newton County, which could potentially lead to increased sales tax revenue.

"I don’t know how long vampires will be flying around Covington, but we can have people come to Newton County to pull fruits and vegetables and ride horses," Ellis said.

Ellis talked about starting on a zero-based budget soon, where each department would build its budget from the ground up. He also mentioned the possibility of forming a citizen’s budget committee to bring residents into the mix.

"The work starts on next year’s budget right away," Ellis said.

He also said the county has to make some tough decisions about what to do with the landfill and recycling centers and said he was "willing to put that on my shoulders to make sure we carry through will all these things."

However the vote goes — whether the board raises the millage rate or chooses to cut departments — Ellis said relationships must continue to strengthen,

"Obviously there is some tension about this vote; an uneasiness. But I also think those commissioners will vote their conscience. How can you blame somebody if you do that?" said Ellis, noting he came up with proposals that cut the budget and kept the millage rate the same. "We want to continue the relationships we’ve been building."

A copy of the proposed budget is available at the Historic Courthouse.

The News will request a copy Monday and post it online as soon as possible.