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BOC needs more than $2 million to balance budget

The Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) still hasn’t resolved their budget, which will have a $2.6 million shortfall even if reductions are made by departments in their fiscal year 2017 requests.

As of May 25, requests need to be reduced by $10,183,807 to meet fiscal year 2016 numbers. From there the BOC will need to find another $2.6 million in reductions or revenue in order to not raise the millage rate of the county’s maintenance and operation, which was 12.99 in fiscal year 2016.

In order to bridge that gap, the BOC came to a consensus during a work session Monday to not accept a $300,000 increase in the cost of ambulance service, look into solutions for garbage collection and freeze hiring that will save around $400,000.

Garbage collection was the item that drew the most discussion during the work session, with several ideas being floated around to reduce the amount of money lost on the county’s 11 convenience centers.

Many of the commissioners have expressed that their constituents told them they want the centers to remain open. However, the commissioners also agree that closing them will save costs.

District 5 Commissioner Levie Maddox during a previous budget meeting proposed shutting down six of the centers, reducing the number of days the remaining five were open and charge a fee for residents to use the centers.

“If we went to five centers, operated five days a week, with a total of 45 hours each week, the centers probably can save somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000.”

The BOC decided to add a fee to the centers a year ago, but the decal system it was trying to put in place could never be implemented, leaving the county with a $1 million shortfall in revenue. Therefore a $50 annual fee per residence attached to the tax bill was discussed. That fee, according to Interim County Manager Lloyd Kerr, could generate around $2 million.

However, the commissioners were hesitant to attach a fee to every resident.

“I cannot, will not and do not support a property tax increase to pay for the centers,” Maddox said. “I would rather support total closure of the landfill and every center.”

“We need to get some professionals to look at our model and give us a recommendation,” District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims said. “And the fear I have is if we stick a $50 tax bill on the citizens this year and have a new model next year, it will be crazy.”

District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she was going to “crunch numbers” to see what she thought would be a solution to the convenience centers.

Maddox and Sims said they would also look at things before making a decision, especially on cutting appropriations.

Kerr recommended the BOC reduce spending to appropriations by 20 percent, which could save the county $168,000.

District 1 Commissioner John Douglas said he would support Kerr’s decision if the appropriations needed to be cut. Schulz said she would not want a 20 percent cut across the board because that is not how she “is normally accustomed to doing business. District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he would not support cuts to any appropriations.

“I want 100 percent funding,” Henderson said. “We’re only talking about $168,000. If we take it or don’t take it we’re still going to have around a $2.6 million deficit.”

Kerr also recommended taking a $750,000 credit against the Newton County Library System for the county’s assistance in acquiring a new HVAC system this year. That request was met with hesitancy as well, with many of the commissioners not willing to take it all at once.

The library, and Newton County’s other appropriations — chamber of commerce, McIntosh Trail, DFACS, health department, Alcovy CASA, Newton County Community Partnership, Washington Street Community Center and Nelson Heights Community Center (ViewPoint Health was not available Monday) — presented their cases to the board during the work session.

Also presenting were Clerk of Courts Linda Hayes and Sheriff Ezell Brown who did not present with the other elected officials at the previous budget meeting.

Hayes told the board that ultimately she was only asking for what would be a $13,000 shortfall after new systems are implemented.

“I have been working on a project that has taken a year and this week we’re supposed to have that turned on. That is putting records up on the internet,” Hayes said. “That is 24-7 access for the public. They would be able to make their own copies.”

Brown, who is asking for the largest budget increase out of all the departments — $5.4 million for law enforcement and $2.3 million for the jail — told the board his budget would be reduced to similar to what it was in 2009, when the crime volume was half what it was now.

“If you look back to 2009, we’re operating with the 2009 budget today,” Brown said. “Crime has doubled, and the call volume has doubled since that time. And we wasted more money in turnover because [the deputies] are overworked and underpaid.”

Brown told the board he estimates the sheriff’s department is losing $3 million a year in investments made in officers who have taken jobs elsewhere.

“They leave to go elsewhere for maybe 50 cents more but to work a little less,” Brown said. “We have officers work 12 hours without a break, or one refuses to come in because they work 28 days around the clock. The officers are telling us now that ‘we are no longer willing to work the overtime.’”

When Kerr suggested the board implement a hiring freeze, he originally included the sheriff’s office open positions, which would have saved more than $1 million. However, Brown told Kerr the sheriff’s office couldn’t be included in that freeze.

“As sheriff of this county it is my responsibility to bring to you a sound budget as to its cost and what it would take to keep this community safe,” Brown told the board. “It is my job to give you a realistic budget and your job from that budget to give me a reasonable portion of [the county’s] budget to operate the office of sheriff.”

After going over what effects cuts to the appropriations would have, the board then asked Kerr to bring back financial numbers representing closing the convenience centers, charging for the centers, or doing both before its next budget work session.

The board will meet Wednesday, June 15 at 6 p.m.