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County mulls tax hike or service cut
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Newton County officials and residents are in for a tough decision this budget year: Should the county cut services or choose some combination of raising the property tax rate and implementing new fees for the right to own pets, to use parks or to use county recycling centers?

Commissioners discussed budget possibilities in a meeting Monday evening, as they seek ways to bridge an expected property tax shortfall of $2.6 million from last year's $46.3 million budget.

County finance officials presented a $48.4 million budget option Monday as they seek to pare down $50.94 million in budget requests. The proposal was designed to provide commissioners with a starting point as they ponder making cuts or raising taxes.

"I think this is going to be the hardest decision any of us have ever had to make," Chairman Kathy Morgan said at Monday's work session.

Commissioners Mort Ewing and Nancy Schulz suggested that the county use the current $46.3 million budget as a starting point.

Board members also requested that county staff calculate how much of the current budget is devoted to the dozens of services required to be provided by state law, such as housing prisoners and providing health services. Two of the most popular amenities, libraries and recreational facilities, are not mandated under state law, though counties are expected by the public to fund them to some degree.

Because the county is going to collect around $2.6 million less in property taxes, it would have to raise the millage rate from 10.9 to 12.21 to collect the same $46.3 million it collected last year. The proposed $48.4 million budget would necessitate a millage rate of 13.13.

Implementing new fees was given as a possible alternative or supplement to raising taxes. The board did not express a desire to move forward on any new fees, but three ideas were discussed.

One option would be to charge a fee to user recycling centers. The county has 38,000 residential parcels in the county, 33,000 of which have homes, so a $10 across-the-board fee could bring in more than $300,000. The fee could be added to the county property tax bill.

Another option bandied about was requiring a license to own pets. The county has previously considered an annual license for all cats and dogs older than six months of age. Licenses for spayed or neutered animals would cost $10 per animal and $25 for animals that were not spayed or neutered. The county dropped the issue because of negative public feedback, but desperate times appear to call for desperate measures.

The board also discussed the possibility of charging a library or park fee to use those facilities. This fee would be more difficult to administer, but would supplement two areas the county is not mandated by the state to provide. Ewing said the board should consider fees for any non-mandated services.

Morgan said the board and public needed to decide on the issues of quality of life and necessary services. She has repeatedly said that last year's cuts brought the county to a bare bones operation.

To make matters worse, Newton County might have to take out a Tax Anticipation Note, or loan, for the first time in many years simply to run its government during the summer. The county has previously used its budget reserve account, or fund balance, to carry the county from July 1, the start of a new budget year, until October, when the first property tax revenues begin arriving.

From July 1 through October 1, the county will incur $11.8 million in costs, but its reserves will at best be $6.9 million. Although these types of loans are common for county governments, they cost the county a little more money in an already trying time.

Morgan put out another call for budget suggestions to all commissioners and residents. Email suggestions to The county will hold its next budget work session at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Historic Courthouse.