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Citizens criticize planned tax increase
Board revises law enforcement use under firearms ordinance
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“Don’t tax me, bro!”

A handful of residents held signs outside the Historic Courthouse Tuesday opposing a planned tax increase by the Newton County Board of Commissioners and later spoke during public comments, urging the board to reconsider its plans before the official budget vote scheduled for the July 16 meeting.

The county will hold a public hearing on the millage rate, which is set to increase from 10.91 to 11.59, and the fiscal year 2014 budget at 6:30 p.m. on July 16, just before its regularly scheduled meeting. The majority-supported budget is $45.95 million, up from last year’s $44.89 million budget.

Aaron Brooks, who came with his whole family, said budget increases shouldn’t be placed on the “backs of property owners” and told the board he believes additional taxes would hurt the county’s development instead of aiding it.
“If you want more of something, subsidize it; if you want less of something, tax it. So the question becomes, does this commission want less people investing in real property in Newton County?” Brooks said.

While acknowledging other surrounding counties had higher rates, Brooks questioned whether new Baxter employees would choose to live in Newton County or Morgan County, which has a lower county millage rate of 8.99, according to documents passed out previously by Chairman Keith Ellis.

Brooks said a millage rate increase would place Newton County near Gwinnett County’s 11.78 millage rate.

“Can we expect to receive the same benefits Gwinnett County’s residents receive?” Brooks asked.

Jessica Wright, with the Newton County Campaign for Liberty, said she has gathered many signatures against the tax increase and vowed to remember which commissioners vote for it.

Resident Dennis Taylor said the county’s budget woes are partially because of the poor economy but also because the county’s SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) was being used to build new facilities, like parks, libraries and community center that add maintenance costs, instead of reducing them.

He said he is personally advocating the revamping of SPLOST laws to allow the funding to be spent on daily operations and personnel instead of only special projects, namely land, buildings, vehicles and equipment; he urged the board to also call for a law change.

Previously, commissioners Levie Maddox, Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims reached a consensus to support a budget that called for a higher millage rate, though all three said the decision was a difficult one and they wanted to focus immediately on finding efficiencies to save money and ways to produce non-tax revenue.

Commissioner John Douglas adamantly opposed any millage rate increase, while Commissioner J.C. Henderson has not expressed a final opinion, saying he opposes any budget that calls for a new fee to use the county’s recycling centers, because the public hasn’t been involved in discussions.

A copy of the full budget can be seen at the Historic Courthouse by visiting the finance department.

Firearms ordinance
Law enforcement officials will now be subject to the county’s recently-passed firearms ordinance when they are not carrying out their official duties.

The Board of Commissioners unanimously approved amending the ordinance so that law enforcement officers no longer have a blanket exemption to fire their guns wherever they want, whenever they want.

Commissioner Douglas advocated for the change to put all residents on equal ground and was supported in that sentiment by Commissioner Sims.

“No disrespect to any law officer, but if you’re off-duty and you’re just Joe Citizen, why should you be able to do something that an average citizen can’t do?” Sims asked.

Sims said if law enforcement officers weren’t working, he didn’t believe they should have the right to shoot recreationally wherever they want.

The law change did not appear to be based on any complaints, as law enforcement officers had that right previously under the old ordinance and there were no reports, both county attorney Jenny Carter and Sheriff Ezell Brown said. Brown opposed the ordinance change because he said he didn’t believe it was necessary, but he said he also didn’t believe the change would impact his deputies.

The revised “discharge of firearms” ordinance was passed in late May and revised restrictions on where guns could be fired, relaxing some existing rules and adding other restrictions.

One of the major changes is that hunting will no longer be regulated by local laws, but will only be subject to state laws and regulations.

The new ordinance restricts the recreational firing of guns — namely target practice — on properties smaller than 2 acres, and keeps the previous 100-yard restriction for buildings and roads; the ordinance does relax the 100-yard restriction so that it does not apply to a shooter’s own property.

Restrictions do not apply to BB guns or air guns, as the ordinance defines firearms specifically as weapons that “expel a projectile” by “an explosive or electrical charge.”

The ordinance also outlaws recreational night shooting, restricting it between 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.

The ordinance also imposes new penalties, which call for a first-time convicted offender to face a fine of $500 to $1,000 and 30 to 120 days of jail time. Anyone convicted multiple times would face a fine of $1,000 and 90 to 120 days of jail time for each conviction.