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County budget process kicks off
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Newton County commissioners have begun working their way through next year’s proposed budget, and they’ll once again be faced with the tough task of trying to fund needed increases with little extra revenue.

According to the county’s initial budget, total general county revenues are expected to increase by $590,393 to a total of $45.57 million, assuming a further drop in the county’s tax digest but a decent increase in sales tax revenues.

At the same time, department heads are seeking extra funding and have requested a proposed $50.32 million in expenses; last year’s final budgeted expenses were $44.89 million.

County department heads will lobby for the increases — the constitutional officers, including judges, the district attorney, tax commissioner and sheriff presented Monday — but it will be up to county commissioners to determine which if any departments see extra money in fiscal year 2014, which starts July 1.

One increase will come from the county eliminating five more furlough days from county employees’ schedules. During last year’s budget cycle, County Manager John Middleton said the county paid about $65,000 per day in wages and benefits; it’s unclear how that number differs this year. Even if they get five working days back, county employees will still have five furlough days left over from previous significant budget cuts; officials have said previously they want to give the remaining five days back next year.

However, by far, the largest increases were requested by Sheriff Ezell Brown, who is seeking an additional $3.85 million to pay for both additional law enforcement costs and costs at the jail.

The tax digest — the value of all the county’s land, buildings, vehicles, machinery and timber — will not be finalized for weeks, but county officials are working off an estimated net tax digest — the property that is taxed, as opposed to exempt — that would drop $120.14 million to $1.83 billion.

The county’s millage, or property tax, rate is 10.91, but in recent years (since the economic decline) the initial proposed budget has been based on a “rollback” rate, which is the rate at which the county would collect the same amount in property taxes as the year before. Because the tax digest declined, the county’s millage rate would have to be raised to 11.59 to allow the county to collect the same amount in property tax.

County commissioners have chosen not to use the rollback rate in recent years. The millage rate was increased from 9.73 to 10.91 in 2010 for fiscal year 2011. This year’s board has two new commissioners and will have to decide how it wants to address the millage rate.

Local option sales tax revenue is expected to jump by $270,000 to $8.25 million, while taxes on various utilities were expected to nearly double to $550,000. Insurance premium taxes were also projected to increase by $175,000, with the intangible tax, which is charged on long-term notes, expected to increase by $125,000.
However, the sheriff’s office expects to receive $425,000 less from the state to house prisoners.

The county is also expecting to see a bump in revenue from the new car sales tax, which went into effect March 1. In 2013, the new one-time title tax will cost buyers 6.5 percent of the vehicle’s worth, but those owners will no longer have to pay the annual ad valorem tax on their birthdays. However, Middleton said officials don’t yet know how that revenue will come in month to month.

Commissioners also discussed a proposed state bill that would have required county clerks of court to give the fees they collect to process passports to the counties, instead of keeping them as personal income, but Commissioner John Douglas said the bill has not yet passed and said he wouldn’t count on it passing next year, either, due to the powerful clerks lobby.