On Tuesday, the Newton County Board of Commissioners officially approved a 10.91 millage rate for FY2011, three weeks after approving the $46.3 million budget that depended on increased property revenues from that rollup millage rate.
The millage rate approval had to be delayed in order to give the county time to properly advertise the revised 10.91 rate as required by law; previously the 9.73 rate had been the only rate publicly advertised.
The official decision was met with little fanfare as no residents spoke at the 6:30 p.m. budget public hearing. However, during the regular BOC meeting, Commissioner J.C. Henderson commented on the layoffs and said he felt he deserved to know the names of the county employees being laid off, not just their positions.
He also questioned why some employees were given raises. Chairman Kathy Morgan could not be reached Thursday to provide perspective on the issue.
Mirroring the 3-2 budget vote, commissioners Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming voted against the 10.91 millage rate.
The county is expecting to collect $25.8 million in property taxes in FY2011, down from nearly $27.7 million last year. The net tax digest for FY2011 is $2.36 billion, down $481 million from last year’s $2.84 billion net digest. This net digest reduction was incorrectly reported by The News in previous budget stories.
In other budget news, the BOC approved a resolution to allow all county employees involuntarily terminated without cause during 2010 to receive 100 percent of the money they invested in their 401k program, regardless of service time. Normally, employees become fully vested in their investment plan only after four years of service.
Administrative Assistant John Middleton said the county has already set money aside to cover this cost. Last year, the county extended health benefits to the employees it laid off, Middleton said, allowing them to maintain their health coverage past the normal 30-day period.
The BOC held a senior services work session Tuesday night, and once again decided that the current structure of the organization’s board of directors was not working. Two key shortcomings cited by officials were a lack of participation and the inability or unwillingness to do fundraising.
After a year of discussion about a dysfunctional board of directors structure at senior services, the BOC approved a memorandum of agreement Tuesday night with the non-profit Newton County Senior Services, which operates the county’s senior center. However, as part of the MOA, the BOC and NCSS board will work together during the next six months to evaluate the structure of senior services and determine whether any changes are needed and implement those changes prior to the approval of next year’s county budget.
Chairman Morgan said NCSS is one of the best providers of senior services in the state, but the organization needs to tackle two crucial issues:
• a lack of space in Turner Lake Complex senior facility
• a lack of money to pay for increasing demand of senior services
She said states must provide senior services under the Older Americans Act, and in Georgia regional commissions provide funding to counties for those services. Newton County is in the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.
Last summer, NCSS board members and county commissioners both expressed confusion about the role and function of senior services. At the time, Commissioner Mort Ewing was concerned that county employees were reporting directly to a volunteer board of directors. Commissioner Nancy Schulz expressed concern that senior services had been converted to a 501(c)(3) in order to receive private grants, but still received a significant amount of money from the county.
Under the newly approved MOA, NCSS must:
• develop and provide a yearly "Work Program", which will outline all yearly programs and services and any planned changes in those areas
• provide quarterly reports to the BOC about its programs, the number of people served, sources of funding and fundraising activities
• maintain certifications necessary to provide senior meals, home-delivery meals and senior wellness programs
• provide requests for money, including invoices, to the county on an as needed basis
In addition, the MOA specifies that the physical "senior center" building must be used solely to provide nutritional, transportation and health services programs and recreational, educational and social opportunities to senior citizens and invited quests. This MOA can be terminated by either party for any reason with 30 days written notice.
However, at the work session, commissioners and longtime Senior Services Director Josephine Brown discussed the possibility of a drastic restructuring. Morgan said she has been searching for someone to become the chair of the NCSS board, but some candidates have declined the position because of the fundraising duties needed. Schulz said she had been frustrated by the delay in finding a chairman, but then she thought a small, fundraising-focused board simply may not be the right way to go.
She said it’s been nearly impossible for anyone to raise funds during the recession. In addition, the current NCSS wasn’t able to deal with other senior issues like parking and providing sufficient heating and air conditioning to more fragile citizens on a fixed income. She suggested Newton County study the 24-member Community Council on Aging in Athens-Clarke County, which has much broader goals and responsibilities and excellent community participation. For more information on this group visit accaging.org.
Brown said that sounded like a local organization that used to exist, and she believed such a group would allow the county to apply for even more grants from the state for additional programs. Schulz said fundraising would be much easier with 20-plus members than with six members.
Under the MOA, the BOC and NCSS board will study this and other possible solutions over the next six months.