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County budget wont need tax hike
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Four county commissioners informally agreed at Monday night's work session to support a $44.89 million budget that will restore five paid working days to employees, but will not give the chamber of commerce any additional funding for economic development.

Commissioners Mort Ewing, Tim Fleming, Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims said Monday they were comfortable with the proposed budget as created by County Manager John Middleton, Finance Director Michelle Kelly and staff. Commissioner J.C. Henderson did not attend the budget work session.

Unlike past years, there were no tense discussions about cuts because the budget is expected to rise, by $649,880, for the first time in four years, allowing most departments to simply hold the line.

In fact, to date, no line items have even been adjusted from the time the budget was first introduced, including funding for the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber President Hunter Hall requested the economic development budget allocation from the county be nearly doubled from $120,000 to $225,000, in order to allow the chamber to continue efforts to woo industry, particularly while interest is peaking following the Baxter International mega-announcement.

The chamber's funding request wasn't discussed Monday, except for a comment by Sims, who said he hoped the county would find some extra revenue throughout the year to either give to the chamber or county employees to restore additional working days.

One of the largest budget increases was eliminating five furlough days for employees, which will cost the county $325,000. Middleton and Chairman Kathy Morgan made the move a priority saying the county needed to work toward making employees whole again in light of continued cuts and low morale. Officials have said that other counties have attempted to hire Newton County employees by offering higher pay.

The five days will 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.

There was little change in the county's largest expenditures, which included:
- the Newton County Sheriff's Office receiving 42 percent, or $18.66 million, for law enforcement, jail operation and student resource officers
- the seven court departments (superior court, clerk of court, district attorney, etc.) receiving a total of $4.65 million
- the fire department receiving $3.88 million
- the road department receiving $3.33 million
- the 16 various groups the county supports (chamber, DFACS, library, senior services, etc.) receiving $5.89 million

Land values down again
The calm budget process comes despite the fact property tax revenues are expected to decline significantly again.

The total tax digest is expected to decrease between 10 and 11 percent, Chief Tax Appraiser Tommy Knight said Monday, an even greater drop than last year's 8 percent decline.

The net tax digest, which is the value of all land, buildings, vehicles and equipment in the county, was $2.17 billion last year, but a 10.5 percent decline would bring it down to $1.94 billion.

While the digest won't yet be finalized for a few weeks as property value appeals are settled, Knight said he did not expect the digest to change significantly. He said he has kept Middleton updated weekly on how the digest was looking, which allowed Middleton to anticipate the budget decline in his initial budget.

In addition, Knight said Newton County was facing far less property value appeals, 130, than surrounding counties, and he credited his staff for fairly appraising people's and businesses' values.

The loss in property tax revenue, as no millage rate increase is planned, is offset by a projected increase in sales tax revenue, $500,000 more, and $1.28 million in additional insurance premium tax revenue from the state. The tax is collected from insurance companies and allocated to counties based on population, which was a boon to Newton County as it gained nearly 40,000 residents between 2000 and 2010.

When asked, Knight said he didn't see the local real estate market getting significantly better for the next three years. Total foreclosures were down in 2011, dropping from 1,930 to 1,523, but Knight said that was in part because banks had to follow more strict foreclosure standards, which led to a temporary decline in the last quarter of the year.

In addition, more sales than ever, 81 percent, were from the banks, and the average price of a bank-owned property continued to drop to $63,061, losing another 8 percent in 2011.