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Board reaches consensus on budget
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The citizens and county employees who had filled the Newton County Historic Courthouse broke out in applause Wednesday night after Chairman Kathy Morgan announced that the Newton County Board of Commissioners had reached a consensus on a budget for next year.

The BOC voiced unanimous approval for a balanced budget for fiscal year 2010, which will keep the millage rate at 9.73 and will cut approximately 16 non-public safety jobs.

The biggest budget adjustment came from the sheriff’s department, which will not see any increased personnel or money next year but will instead stay at the same funding level as the original FY2009 budget. The sheriff will not receive the more than 10 additional employees he initially requested to properly staff the jail and provide extra deputies in the field. This change sliced nearly $1.82 million from the remaining $4.98 million deficit.

The second largest budget reduction is the elimination of approximately 16 full-time employees. Employees do not have to be cut, but at least $399,418 has to be cut, and the only non-essential expense left in many departments is personnel. The 16-employee figure is determined by valuing the average employee position at $50,000. Cutting 16 employees would save $800,000 but $400,582 of that would be offset due to severance packages and other items.

Morgan said she didn’t know which positions would be cut, but she said approximately four of the positions are currently empty and will simply not be filled. She said that citizens will see a slow down in service for each department that requires a full-time employee cut, but she’s not sure which departments will be affected yet.

The third largest change was an addition of projected revenue because of a higher than expected tax digest. The county received its final tax digest on Tuesday and the larger digest, $2.84 billion up from the previously projected $2.80 billion, will bring in an additional $400,572 to the county at the 9.73 millage rate.

Other previously discussed options such as mandating 15 unpaid holidays for every county employee, reducing overtime and eliminating district projects were approved and reduced the deficit by the remaining more than $2 million.

Further 5 percent reductions to appropriations to the library, recreation commission and other areas were not included in this approved budget.

All of the commissioners commended Chairman Kathy Morgan, Administrative Officer John Middleton and the county staff for coming up with a budget proposal that addressed everyone’s concerns.

Morgan said she was proud of the commissioners for their hard work during the budget process.

"As you are aware, each was very passionate and considerate of every issue presented," she said. "We simply do not have the money this year due to the decrease in the property valuations. We had two choices, raise the millage rate or cut services. Because the general assembly chose not to renew the Homestead Tax Relief Grant and each property owner will have to pay that portion of the tax bill, we felt that each homeowner will have to come up with more dollars this year. There will be cuts in service but I hope it has a minimal effect on the citizens of Newton County."

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing said he was very pleased that the budget didn’t include a millage rate increase, didn’t cut any public safety jobs and was approved unanimously by the BOC.

Sheriff Ezell Brown said after the meeting that he will continue to control costs while providing the necessary public safety services. He said the approved budget will increase morale among his officers who will no longer have to worry about losing their jobs, but he added that his heart goes out to the county employees who will be let go.

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson warned the packed courthouse audience that all of these numbers are only projections, which could change in the future.

Morgan also warned that the county has neglected economic development leading to an unbalanced tax digest, which places too high of a burden on residents’ property taxes.

"I feel economic development is extremely important to our community and until we invest time and dollars to bring our digest back into balance, our current situation will not improve," she said.

Two economic development initiatives were cut out of the budget, but may be reinstated if the county’s actual revenue is higher than the projected revenue. Both initiatives are joint projects between the county and other municipalities. The first is for $60,000, the county’s share, to carry out projects included in the Leadership Collaborative’s economic development strategic plan, which was released earlier this year.

The other project is also for $60,000, the county’s share, to hire a full-time Georgia Tech employee, who would work with local industry to assist them in implementing lean management techniques and coming up with innovative ideas to stabilize their business and boost their profitability. The county currently has something similar, but that employee is shared between 12 other counties, and Morgan said a devoted professional would help current industry and help draw more industry.

Citizens were not able to comment publically on the budget during Wednesday’s work session, but the county will have one of its mandatory public hearings for the budget at 6:30 p.m. June 16, before the regularly scheduled BOC meeting.