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Chairman invites public input on county budget
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Newton County Chairman Keith Ellis expects to spend next week scouring the budget, looking for areas to cut and trying to get his five commissioners to come to a consensus. He said he welcomes any input from the public.

Ellis is hosting a special budget-themed "Chat with the Chairman" from 3 to 4 p.m., Monday in his second-floor office in the Historic Courthouse.

He also invited citizens to call his executive assistant Hosanna Fletcher at 678-625-1225 to set up an appointment this week if they have ideas about next fiscal year’s budget, which is expected to be approved this month.

"We welcome input. If they have some constructive ideas, I would be excited about speaking to constituents — conservative as well as the opposite end of the spectrum — about what’s best for the county. It’s all about efficiency, customer service and trying to build a better county," Ellis said Friday.

Commissioners remain far apart after last week’s budget meeting, the sixth this year, Ellis said, as they try to decide whether to support the $45.94 million budget proposed by staff.

It would require the county to increase the millage rate from 10.91 to 11.59 to account for a falling tax digest — the value of all land, buildings, vehicles, timber and heavy equipment in the county.

The other option is to cut $1.25 million from that budget, which County Manager John Middleton said Monday would likely come from three areas:

• $357,337 in cuts from county departments, including a reduction in employees;

• $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.

"We do have a lot of work cut out for us to try to make sure we run as efficiently as possible," Ellis said Friday. "Our number one concern right now is our employees. I’m not pushing hard on commissioners right now; we’re working on a pace that will be deliberate. We’re looking at every expense, line-by-line item.

"Some things are set in stone, and some are at our discretion," said Ellis, noting, for example, that the county has a new $750,000 cost to pay off a state loan it took to expand the county landfill, which was filling up. That loan has to be paid.

"We certainly want to make our employees whole if we can, but that’s still a thing where those five days (furlough days) are on the table," Ellis said.

The Board of Commissioners mandated 15 furlough days for county employees first in fiscal year 2010, which began July 1, 2009. Commissioners gave back five paid days this current budget year and had hoped to give back five more apiece over the next two budget years.

Another budget meeting has not yet been scheduled, but Ellis said another will be scheduled if needed.