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Budget discussion heats up
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Newton County faces some tough decisions for next year’s budget with the Sheriff seeking a $6.2 million increase and county employees impatient for raises.

The Board of Commissioners discussed the need to double down on fiscal responsibility Thursday night after they heard from the heads of several departments and discussed the contentious issues of legal spending and the convenience centers.

Among Sheriff Ezell Brown’s requests were $6.8 million for law enforcement salaries, not including the recent raises approved by the BOC, which would also cover 15 new full time and eight new part time employees. He also asked for $210,000 for repairs and maintenance of vehicles; $163,000 for public works repairs; $285,000 for uniforms; and $1,272,324 for new vehicle purchases.

For the jail, Brown requested $4 million for salary, including 10 new hires; $2.1 million for inmate medical services; and $326,000 for building renovations.

Brown also requested funds for body cameras, telling Commissioner John Douglas in response to a question, “In light of what’s going on in the world with police departments, I think any kind of on person eyewitness piece of equipment is ideal.”

The commissioners also heard from James Peters, who manages the county landfill, and discussed the Solid Waste Fund, which receives a $1.6 million annual transfer out of the General Fund to break even.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz pointed out that a significant portion, about $923,000, was being lost on the convenience centers. Commissioner J.C. Henderson countered that much of that was for the county’s trucks and drivers.

“I think we’re being taxed to death and we don’t need another tax,” said Henderson, speaking out against charging citizens for drop-off at the convenience centers.

Commissioner Lanier Sims appeared to disagree.

“I’ve harped on this for four years…how long are we going to keep going into the red? We’re not even taking baby steps to break even,” he said.

Peters suggested the county revisit its 10-year solid waste plan and consider allowing the waste collectors with whom it already has contracts to bring in some waste from surrounding counties to make up the revenue.

Commissioners also heard from the Coroner and Public Works, with both departments requesting slight increases. The Fire Department submitted a proposal for a $63,000 increase, the department’s first since 2012. Jason Nord, the water resources director, said he did not foresee an increase in the price the county charges its wholesale customers. The BOC’s proposed budget decreased slightly, after two employees were transferred to another department.

After the commissioners had heard from all the scheduled department heads, Schulz reminded the board that they had agreed to discuss the county’s legal fees and seek input from County Manager Tom Garrett on the issue.

“It was said we would discuss it at the budget meeting and we just keep kicking that can down the road,” Schulz said. “When it gets really uncomfortable, we just avoid it.”

According to the latest financial report, the county is at 139 percent of its legal budget for the General Fund and more than 500 percent of legal budget for the Solid Waste Fund.

Ellis responded, accusing Schulz of “harping” on the issue.

“We have made some strides…I know you are not happy with the agreement we reached,” Ellis told Schulz, referring to a proposal reached by himself, Commissioner Levie Maddox, Commissioner Douglas and County Attorney Tommy Craig to cap Craig’s legal fees at $800,000, nearly twice the current legal budget.

Sims stepped in, calling Ellis’ words “disrespectful.”

“I think that’s disrespectful not only to the commissioner but to the citizens who have asked us to look into this,” he said.

Douglas emphasized that the arrangement with Craig, which did not include Henderson, Sims, or Schulz, was only a proposal that would be voted on by the entire commission.

“We just did not go through the process where we got up and told the citizens what we’re going to do,” Sims countered.
Maddox pointed out that in his view, it was unfair to focus on the county attorney when the sheriff was requesting a $6 million increase after consistently running over budget.

The board appeared to come to a consensus that all departments and constitutional officers needed to stay within their budgets, while Garrett agreed to give an “overview” of how, in his opinion, the county could control legal spending.
Schulz ended the meeting by expressing appreciation for the work of Garrett and Finance Director Michelle Kelly, who have prepared and posted the financial report and check registry to the county website since the beginning of the year.

“We didn’t have data in a usable form and now we do,” Schulz said.