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County budget rises first time in 4 years
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How you're affected by the county budget:

- no budget decrease means the board isn't discussing raising taxes

- if you're a county employee or married to one, you or your spouse is likely to get five more paid days in fiscal year 2013

- the county is planning to open another early voting center at the Porter Memorial Branch Library, 6191 Ga. Highway 212, Covington, to make voting more accessible to western county residents

- the county is considering regulating curbside trash pickup by private companies

- the county could even see surplus revenue due to new Walmart

Property tax revenues for the county continue to decline, yet for the first time in four years the county's budget is actually projected to increase.

While initial projections, which are sure to change, show the county will collect around $1.9 million less in property taxes next fiscal year, improved sales tax numbers and more insurance tax money from the state will allow the county to increase its budget.

The proposed fiscal year 2013 budget is $44.89 million, up nearly $650,000 from last year's $44.24 million budget.

The tax digest, which is the value of all of the land, buildings and vehicles in the county won't be finalized until later this year but values continue to decline because of the continuing affect of a state law that says foreclosures must be valued at the price at which they were sold.

However, sales tax revenue appears to have stabilized at around $665,000 per month, which works out to $7.98 million for a year, nearly $500,000 more than the $7.5 million the county budgeted for the current year.

In addition, the county will get nearly $1.28 million more in insurance premium tax money from the state. The insurance premium tax is tied to population, so Newton County's massive growth between 2000 (62,000) and 2010 (99,958) led to the county getting a larger share of insurance tax monies.

County Manager John Middleton said at Monday's work session that insurance tax money is collected by the insurance commissioner from the entire state and then each county is given its pro rata share.

The property tax decline is basically offset by those two increased revenues, while the actual budget increase of $650,000 is covered by various, smaller revenue increases, Middleton said Tuesday, including the county receiving more money from the state for housing state prisoners, additional grant funding and contingency money carried over from last year.

Another increase in revenue for the general budget comes from an accounting change. The county is now charging its separate self-contained funds, such as the water fund and solid waste fund, for general administrative support, such as human resources, payroll and engineering. These separate funds will now be required to pay their share of those costs. While this doesn't bring the county more money it does benefit the general fund and, by extension, taxpayers, whose property taxes go into the general fund.

Removing five furlough days
One of the biggest changes is the elimination of five furlough days for county employees. Currently, employees have to take 15 furlough days, also called unpaid holidays.

Restoring five of the days will cost the county $325,000, as Middleton said the county pays about $65,000 per day in wages and benefits.

The five days would not revert to paid holidays but rather to regular paid working days; the county added local holidays when the furlough days were needed and will now remove those created holidays. Adding five days will increase productivity and paid hours by 1.92 percent, according to budget documents.

New early voting center
The county is planning to open another early voting center at the Porter Memorial Branch Library, 6191 Ga. Highway 212, to make voting more accessible to residents in western Newton County. Currently, the only early voting site was at the Newton County Administration Building, 1113 Usher St. in Covington.

Early voting will be reduced 45 days down to 21 days, but early voting booths will now be open on one Saturday.

New county website
The proposed budget also contains $12,500 for a new county website. Middleton encouraged the board to keep the money in the budget as the current website needs improvement.

Groups ask for more money
The county also partially funds several groups including the library system, mental, physical and environmental health departments, the recreation commission and the Washington Street Community Center.

The only group Middleton and finance officials have recommended giving more money into fiscal year 2013 is Newton County Senior Services, which has seen both increased use of its services and decreased revenue from the local United Way.

County officials also recommended that the county continue to fund the Nelson Heights Community Center at $32,000 per year. The center, located at the corner of Laseter and Puckett streets, ran for two years on funding that had been set aside previously, but is now scheduled to receive dedicated yearly funding.

However, the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce requested a doubling of its yearly allocation from $120,000 to $250,000.

Because the budget is balanced as is, county finance officials and commissioners will likely not amend the budget; however, officials decided Tuesday to hear a presentation from the chamber and to possibly consider funding the chamber or another request later in the year if revenues come in higher than expected.

There is a chance that funding could come in higher as sales tax numbers could be boosted further by the opening of the Walmart at the intersection of Brown Bridge and Salem roads.

Middleton said the county previously used such a tiered budget strategy several years ago, where it had plans for additional revenue that would come in.

Commissioner Lanier Sims said he felt the chamber represented the county's best return on investment. Commissioner Mort Ewing said if additional revenue was available he felt it should be opened up to all groups, not just the chamber. Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he felt additional revenues should be used to remove even more furlough days from employees.