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BOC tasks staff with cutting budget
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The Newton County Board of Commissioners didn’t make any major budget decisions Monday night, but asked the county manager and finance director to propose cuts and prepare two budgets for commissioners to study in two weeks.

Commissioners charged County Manager John Middleton and Finance Director Michelle Kelly with cutting back requested expenses and creating two budgets:

• one that works off the current millage rate of 10.91 and would call for a slightly reduced budget of around $44.5 million;

• one that works off the "rollback" rate of 11.59 mills (which would bring in the same amount of property tax revenue and account for property value reductions) and would create a slightly larger budget at $45.86 million.

Last year’s budget was $44.89 million.

However, requests from departments this year totaled $50.37 million, meaning county management will have to cut either $4.5 million or $5.8 million in requests.

The bulk of those cuts will likely have to come from the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, which had $3.91 million in additional requests for next year. The sheriff’s office accounted for 41.56 percent of the county’s budget last year.

A county resident with a home valued at $100,000 would pay $27 more in property taxes ($436.40 to $463.40) if the millage rate increased from 10.91 to 11.59.

Commissioners were noncommittal Monday about whether they supported a rollback rate; they said they wanted to see the two budgets first.

The next meeting will be at 7 p.m. June 3 at the Historic Courthouse.

Commissioners spent the majority of the approximately 90-minute meeting discussing more general budget concerns and agreed that Middleton and Kelly would be the best choices to make any cuts to requests, since they are much more intimately involved with county operations.

One of commissioners’ common concerns was trying to make the combined landfill and recycling centers operation a revenue-neutral or money-making operation. Currently, the recycling centers lose around $750,000 per year, and while the landfill makes a profit, it’s not nearly enough to cover that loss, forcing the county to use property tax dollars to subsidize that operation instead of other requests.

Commissioners Lanier Sims and Levie Maddox have been pushing the hardest for a look at the operation to see if money can be saved or generated.

Another common concern was increasing employee training and working on employee retention. Commissioner Maddox proposed increasing training funding from $5,000 to $15,000. Commissioners and Middleton said employee retention needs to be a key focus, as other counties are able to offer more pay and better working conditions. Every commissioner was on board with eliminating five furlough days for county employees. If that move is made, employees will only have five furlough days next year instead of 10. The plan is to eliminate the remaining five furlough days the following year.

Continuing to promote wellness programs in an effort to reduce health insurance costs was also mentioned multiple times. Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she wants to see continued incentivizing of healthy living in the form of reduced costs for employees.

Maddox also promoted spending more money on economic development in the hope that it would generate more revenue in the future. He proposed spending $40,000 more next year and increasing that spending every year in an effort to grow economic development in Newton County. Economic development is handled by the Office of Economic Development under the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce.

Schulz also mentioned that the county’s roads can’t continue to be neglected, and said she gets numerous complaints about roads in bad shape.

She also urged fellow commissioners to reduce the amount of time they spend talking to the county attorney about non-urgent issues, in an attempt to reduce those costs.