The Newton County Board of Commissioners approved a spending freeze at their Tuesday night meeting, effectively resulting in a de facto transfer of power from the county chairman to a majority of the board.
The motion for the spending freeze — which is in place until June 30 and excludes legal services, emergency services, public safety, special projects, day-to-day operations and the departments of constitutional officers — was proposed by District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming, a Republican, and seconded by District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson, a Democrat.
District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons, a Democrat, also voted for the measure. District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing and District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz voted against it.
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, the office of county chair — now held by Kathy Morgan — and all county department heads had the ability to approve expenditures up to $20,000. That spending power has now been lowered to $10,000. All expenditures greater than $10,000 must now come before the board for a vote.
Fleming said he proposed the spending freeze because of the precarious state of the county’s finances.
"I feel like we need to ensure the citizens of Newton County that the Board of Commissioners are spending their tax dollars wisely," Fleming said.
Due to a decline in property tax revenues, the county is faced with an estimated 6 percent budget shortfall, according to Newton County Finance Director Marcia Allen. The board approved the spending freeze over the recommendations of Allen and over the protestations of Ewing. County Administrative Officer John Middleton, who is closely involved in the day-to-day operations of the county and its finances, has been out ill since December and Allen said she did not know if he had been consulted about the spending freeze.
Due to the exclusion of legal services, emergency services, public safety, special projects, etc. the spending freeze actually affects only a small portion of the county’s operating budget – that which comes under the purview of the county chair. Public safety alone consumed 45 percent of the county’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget.
Fleming said the spending freeze "isn’t targeted towards anybody. This is just a policy that the board has put in place to show our citizens of the county that we are the watchdogs of the taxpayers’ dollar."
He added, "This is not taking any powers away. This is not stepping on any toes. We set the policy and the chairman carries it out and that is how the board of commissioners is established."
Allen said she recommended that the board delay passing the spending freeze until after a work session is held later this month when they would be given more in-depth information on the state of the county’s finances.
Fleming said he sat down with Allen for several hours prior to being sworn in to go over the county’s budget.
"I did my homework as well as I think most other commissioners did," Fleming said.
Allen said she did not discuss the spending freeze with any of the commissioners prior to its passage.
Ewing said he objected to the spending freeze because of its timing and because he felt he did not have enough information to vote on it.
"We had a work session on January 13… and there were a number of issues discussed at that work session and the board agreed that we needed more information before decisions could be made about a number of subjects …and that we would not put those issues on the agenda until after we had [another] work session," Ewing said.
Though no votes take place at work sessions, Ewing said he understood there was an informal agreement in place and that the board would hold off on voting on a spending freeze until after the work session later this month.
"My position was that I try to be a gentleman in all cases and we had a ladies and gentlemen’s agreement that we would not vote on those issues until we had more information, so I was holding up my end of the agreement," Ewing said.
Ewing said he also questioned why so many big expenditure areas such as public safety and legal services were excluded from the spending limit, which he said makes it less effective.
"Nobody had the answer to that question Tuesday night," Ewing said. "If you look at what they voted for as it relates to the total budget, it’s a very minute part. It may sound great to have a spending freeze, but it really doesn’t do much and that’s what bothered me about it."
Prior to passing a spending freeze Ewing said he thought the BOC should have held a joint meeting with all constitutional officers and all elected officials to discuss the issue and come to an agreement on it.
"It needs to be a joint-effort by everybody," he said.
In other BOC news:
The board also approved a hiring freeze that will be in effect until June 30.
Henderson proposed the motion, which was seconded by Simmons. Fleming joined with the two men in approving the hiring freeze. Opposing it were Schulz and Ewing.
An informal hiring freeze had already been in place for the county for much of 2008, resulting in a number of vacancies.
Henderson said he proposed the motion because "I wanted to go ahead and start looking at ways of saving money. I’d rather be proactive than reactive."