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County discusses layoffs
Public safety a concern for BOC
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The Newton County Board of Commissioners is considering two budget-cutting options to lay off either approximately 45 or 62 county employees in order to balance the fiscal year 2010 budget.

At the May 5 budget work session, the BOC agreed that it did not want to raise the millage rate from 9.73 to 10.308, which means that supply and personnel costs will have to be cut to reduce the entire initial $8.6 million budget deficit.

No final budget decisions have been made, but in previous discussions the BOC decided to cut the majority of the deficit by: eliminating requests for new personnel and new capital projects, requiring county employees to take 15 unpaid holidays, reducing employee overtime and cutting other various expenses.

Those cuts would leave a remaining deficit of $2.23 million. Monday, the BOC looked at two final areas to cut - district appropriation projects, which include economic development initiatives, work on Cousins Gym and an architecture planning charrette among others, and personnel.

Chairman Kathy Morgan presented commissioners with two options, either cut out all district projects and layoff 45 employees, or fund the district projects and layoff 62 employees.

The commissioners didn't make a decision Monday but requested more information from Morgan and Administrative Officer John Middleton. They asked for a list of which employees were mandated by state law, for a list of which employees were required in order to provide essential services and to see if any other money could be cut out of appropriations departments, like recreation and senior services.

In either of the two options, the BOC will have to cut dozens of employees. Most commissioners agreed that the most important question is whether the county can cut all of these jobs and still provide the minimum essential services.

"The most important part for us to say to the public is to be very, very clear that we have to have the leanest government possible that can still provide necessary services," District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said. "There is a lot of debate on what is necessary; that's where the gray area is. What some consider necessary, some might consider fluff."

The job cuts Morgan presented to the BOC were spread proportionally across the government, based on the number of employees in each department. Because the Sheriff's department has 45 percent of the county's employees, they would have the most cuts, between 17 and 27 employees.

Sheriff Ezell Brown said he does not believe his department can provide the necessary services if significant cuts are made to his department. In his initial budget, Brown was asking for more than 10 additional employees to properly staff the jail and provide extra deputies in the field, now he may have to cut employees.

"We are the first line of defense. Imagine if we didn't have the sheriff's department; there would be no need for the BOC, the district attorney, the judges or the courts," Brown said. "It's important that the sheriff's department and law enforcement in general operate in a safe capacity."

Many commissioners, including District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming believe public safety cannot be cut further and he said he believes the BOC should find other departments from which to cut.

If the BOC had agreed to raise the millage rate, it would have cost taxpayers more money, around $15 more in property taxes, but the BOC would only have had to cut around 15 employees.

Morgan said that because of declining property values, increasing the millage rate to 10.308 would keep property taxes at similar levels to last year, but Commissioners Mort Ewing, Fleming and Schulz agreed they did not want to see any tax raises if possible.

"A tax increase is a tax increase. Any increase (in the millage rate) is a tax increase," Fleming said. "An increase is going to affect everyone in the county. It's especially going to affect businesses and industries, especially small business owners. And then when values go up, there would be a significant tax increase."

The BOC can still raise the millage rate if necessary. Schulz said the BOC may have to raise rates if the cuts would affect services mandated by state and federal laws.

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he is disappointed with the fact that the BOC did not discuss many of these issues earlier in the year. He said he wanted the county to look into privatizing some county services, like the landfill, on which they lose money currently. He said he may not vote for this budget, because he did not get the information he requested and he won't just rubber stamp a budget he doesn't agree with.

Schulz said that residents should let their commissioners know their thoughts by e-mailing or calling them. She said e-mail is often better because it leaves a paper trail and allows commissioners to present residents' exact thoughts to the BOC.

The final scheduled budget work session will take place May 18 at 7 p.m. The BOC will have to make a final decision by the end of next week, Morgan said. If they don't come to a consensus Monday, they can reschedule a meeting later in the week, after giving the proper public notice period.