After another two-hour work session Monday, Newton County commissioners have yet to come to a consensus on the biggest budget questions, but County Manager John Middleton said significant cuts to services would be required if commissioners don’t choose to go with the rollback millage rate.
Cutting services and firing employees, as well as reneging on a promise to eliminate five furlough days for employees, would be the likely result if commissioners chose to keep the current millage rate of 10.91, Middleton said.
Because overall property values are declining, the county will collect $1.25 million less in property taxes at the current millage rate. The millage rate — known colloquially as the property tax rate — would need to be increased to 11.59 to make up that money; the rollback rate is simply a mathematical calculation to bring in the same amount of property tax revenue as the year before, accounting for changes in overall property values. However, not everyone’s property values went down, so some homeowners would pay more in taxes under the rollback rate, while others would pay the same or less in total taxes.
With other revenues, namely sales taxes, projected to increase, the net difference would be $213,322 less in revenue than last year; however, the budget prepared by Middleton and county staff calls for $45.94 million in expenses, up more than $1 million from last year, which is the level of funding they feel the county needs to operate effectively.
Without an additional $1.25 million in revenue, Middleton said cuts would likely come from three areas:
• $357,337 in cuts from county departments, including a reduction in force;
• $500,000 from appropriations, which are the programs supported by the county, including recreation, libraries, public health, the chamber and DFACS;
• keeping 10 furlough days in the budget; commissioners hope to reduce the number to five, but that would cost $398,815 in wages.
Middleton said he wasn’t trying to make decisions commissioners but said he didn’t see where else cuts would come from. He said this was the time for the commissioners to make good business decisions and said at a certain point, in his opinion, if a government is providing poor service, what’s the point of collecting taxes?
Following the work session, the board entered into executive session to look at potential employee cuts and also discuss restructuring of some departments.
Even in the rollback rate budget, Middleton said there were some consolidations planned, which he hoped would create some efficiencies in operation that would free up some more money for paving.
Though no other specifics were mentioned, in the proposed rollback budget, cuts were proposed for the engineering ($69,352) and fleet ($49,156) departments.
Fee to use recycling centers?
One other complication is the fact that both proposed budgets assume the county will begin collecting some fee to use the county’s recycling centers. According to previous budget documents, the county is budgeting to collect $354,063 from a proposed “solid waste user fee.”
Discussions about such a fee have been going on for several months for two reasons, namely that the recycling centers cost much more to operate than the recyclables sell for and because many out-of-county residents illegally use the centers.
Commissioner J.C. Henderson opposed the addition of the fee and asked the county to hold public hearings before planning to implement any system.
No decision has been made on how to implement such a fee or how much it would be. Commissioner Levie Maddox has said previously that he believes there is a way to restructure operations at the landfill to either make more money, cut costs or do both. The board agreed to set up a committee to study the issue and bring back recommendations by the end of the calendar year.
However, if the committee doesn’t have success, the board would be left to cut $354,063 out of the budget in January.
The rollback rate can actually, and some experts argue should, be used every year to accommodate for changing property values. However, prior commissions did not reduce the property tax rate during times of booming property values, meaning more money in taxes was collected every year during the housing boom. Commissioner Nancy Schulz said it would be hard for the public to trust the board to lower the tax rate when property values start to increase.
Maddox tossed out of the idea of a sunset provision, where the rate would be lowered in one to two years if values improved. He said he’s been hearing from citizens and small business owners that they don’t support a rollback rate; he’s also heard that existing industry officials in particular feel the county was building its budget on their backs.
While the Newton County Sheriff’s Office sought nearly $4 million more in revenue, Middleton’s proposed budget calls for an increase of $621,646.
Middleton said that many of the sheriff’s requested vehicles may be able to be covered with SPLOST funds, which will be looked at later.
In addition, many of the repairs and upgrades needed at the jail could be paid out of the jail fund, Middleton said. He said the jail fund has a balance of $250,000 and generates about $20,000 to $25,000 annually. No more details were given about the fund.
Commissioner Schulz wants to get opinions from her constituents and is hosting one of her “Fireside Chats” at 7 p.m., Thursday at the Almon Community Center.