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County says no to millage hike
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Budget Battle: In the end, the board of commissioners chose a budget prepared by Chairman Kathy Morgan, which kept the millage rate steady at 10.91. That budget, along with proposals from commissioners Tim Fleming and Nancy Schulz can be downloaded above.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed Monday evening to keep the millage rate at 10.91.

In front of a packed courtroom, the board decided on a $44.28 million budget presented by Chairman Kathy Morgan. Morgan said after the meeting that she hopes to limit employee cuts to fewer than 20.

The budget does not include any new fees, so most residential property tax bills should decline this year.

Although Commissioner Tim Fleming also had a 10.91 budget version up for consideration, the board chose the chairman's because commissioners Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims felt it spread the budget cuts more equitably.

Commissioners Fleming and Mort Ewing said their priority was to prevent a tax increase, and both budgets achieved that goal.

"From day one, I wanted to make sure we kept the budget at 10.91. I feel this revised budget includes a large majority of what I'm asking for, with the cuts throughout the departments. I will support this revised budget," Fleming said.

The largest difference was that the chairman's budget cut the public works budget by $952,195, an 18 percent cut, instead of the $1.57 million (30 percent) cut proposed by Fleming. Public works will receive $4.32 million in fiscal year 2012, which begins July 1.

"I don't care what your department is, if you do a 30 percent cut that would have been a dangerous impact," Morgan said, noting that under her budget, public works will have enough money for normal day-to-day activities.

Recreation was also not cut as deep, being reduced by $100,000, instead of by $144,203. It will receive $1.7 million next fiscal year. Morgan said the cut is actually deeper when considering the three additional parks the recreation department will have to maintain for a full year next year.

Recreation Director Tommy Hailey said he will likely have to cut employees and possibly close facilities or reduce hours of operation further. Three unfilled positions will be cut out of the budget for sure.

He hopes to avoid raising fees, as he feels that be counterproductive and reduce participation in programs. Youth sport participation and public facility rentals have been lower because of the economy, Hailey said.

Chairman Morgan made a call for volunteers to help the county in any way possible, and Hailey said recreation already has one of the largest volunteer bases in the county with coaches and team parents. The problem with volunteers, Hailey said, is that the county has to still pay for a background check and they are not always dependable.

However, if anyone wanted to volunteer to work the front desk at Turner Lake or clean and pick up trash at local parks, Hailey would be happy for the help.

Morgan said Administrative Officer John Middleton will be working with department heads to see where volunteers could work.

The library, however, did not fare better under Morgan's budget, experiencing a $200,000 cut, 18 percent, nearly identical to Fleming's original proposal.

It was unclear Tuesday if that cut would place the county in danger of losing its $337,949 of state funding. Deputy State Librarian Julie Walker said previously that counties can lose state funding if they cut libraries' budgets more than similar departments.

New Library Director Lace Keaton said Tuesday that the library officials are exploring all options. The library opened the Porter Memorial Branch Library in January, but will have to operate that branch for a full year while losing $200,000 from last year's budget.

Although Schulz supported a millage rate of 11.727, which would have kept the budget close to last year's $46 million level, she said she was comfortable with Morgan's cuts and made the decision unanimous. She warned; however, that there was no leeway for the county.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson was the only one who didn't voice approval, but he did nod his head when Morgan asked if he supported the budget.

"I am so excited because what happened here was the commissioners worked together as a team," Morgan said afterwards. "Not only did they talk to one another, but they talked to department heads. I had more department heads call me today and say I've gotten phone calls from commissioner asking me about this."

Chamber President Hunter Hall said afterwards that the decision was a victory for industry, which the county needs to court in order to improve the local economy. He said small businesses and the housing sector are expected to continue to struggle.

"The only sector that's going to lead us out of this recession is durable goods manufacturing, so we don't want to do anything to harm them," Hall said. "Any millage increase would have put a burden on them."

Hall said businesses understand that county services, like permitting and inspections, may not be completed as quickly moving forward.

"That's already happening in the private sector with professions like contractors, bankers, and attorneys. Everyone has cut payroll to the bone and the consequence of this is delayed response times," Hall said Tuesday.

The Newton County Democratic Party did not agree with the millage rate decision calling it short sighted.

"The decision of some commissioners to not even consider a millage rate increase is penny-wise and pound-foolish. It shows a lack of vision and forethought on their part. These dire cuts will send Newton County into a downward spiral of a decreased quality of life that will only exacerbate our difficulty in attracting industry and other businesses to the county," said Chairwoman Sarah Todd in an email.

The budget will not officially be voted on until mid-July, as it first has to be advertised in The News, and the county has to hold two public hearings.

Original story, Sunday: The Newton County Board of Commissioners appear to be leaning toward holding the millage rate at 10.91, but it will take one last stab at reaching a unified consensus at 6:30 p.m., Monday at the Historic Courthouse.

Commissioners had a rigorous and at times tense debate Thursday night over budgets proposed by commissioners Tim Fleming and Nancy Schulz.

Fleming proposed a $44.28 million budget that would not require a millage rate increase and was supported by Commissioner Mort Ewing, who called for the board to reach a consensus that night. Commissioner J.C. Henderson expressed his support for the budget, but agreed to wait until Monday.

The biggest sticking point for commissioners Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims was the $1.57 million cut that Fleming made to the public works department. The cut would reduce the budget from the current $5.28 million level to $3.7 million.

Both commissioners wanted Chairman Kathy Morgan, who oversees public works, to have time to determine the effect of the large cut.

Schulz also presented a budget Thursday night, and Sims said he supported some of her suggestions, while also agreeing with some of Fleming's.

Schulz budget did not call for any reduction to public works, but did call for the millage rate to be raised to 11.318. Her $45.13 million budget would be $1.16 million less than last year's $46.3 million budget.

Under either budget, the county will have to cut some positions. Assuming an average salary of $50,000, with any cost savings reduced by unemployment expense of around $17,000 per employee, the county would cut a maximum of 67 employees under Fleming's budget and 40 under Schulz's. The cuts will likely be less as some non-employee costs will be cut.

The county has a total of 617 employees, including full-time, part-time and elected officials.

If the board reaches a budget consensus Monday, the budget must then be advertised in The News for 14 days before it can be voted on. The earliest the board could officially approve a budget would be July 6. The county will have to pass a continuing budget resolution, so that it can operate on last year's budget for those first six days of the 2012 fiscal year.

Recycling Center Fees
Fleming's budget did not include any added fees, but Schulz's budget did call for a recycling center fee that would cost residents $24 per year to use the county's recycling centers. The fee would be added to property tax bills.

The recycling center fee is expected to bring in $768,000 in revenue. Based on that, Schulz's budget is $1.65 million larger than Fleming's.

Public Works
Ewing reasoned that public works could be cut because the recently passed 2011 SPLOST includes money for road projects and public works equipment, which would more than make up for any reduction.

The 2011 SPLOST allocated $17.28 million to road improvements and $500,000 to public works equipment. Dividing those allocations by 6 years, Newton County expects to collect $2.88 million for roads and $83,333 for equipment during fiscal year 2012, which runs from July 1 to June 30, 2012.

Ewing said that money would supplement the public works department. He also said that by adding in SPLOST revenues, the county's total revenue next year would actually increase. However, that did not appear to account for the fact the county also collected SPLOST money during the current year, which is not included in the $46.3 million operating budget.

Chairman Morgan said public works doesn't only pave roads, but also works on drainage projects, mows grass on county right-of-ways, places chemicals on dirt roads to keep dust down and makes repairs and clears roads after storm damage.

She and Schulz expressed concern about what the county what do if an emergency road repair was needed because of flooding or other damage, like the unstable culvert on Crowell Road.

Morgan is expected to tell commissioners on Monday how a $1.57 million cut would affect public works next year.

Public Safety
Neither proposed budgets made any cuts to public safety. Fleming's did add a $500,000 increase to the jail's budget to pay for additional detention officers, as well as expected increases to food and medical costs.

Library and recreation
Library funding continued to be one of the major discussion points. Because the library is not a federal or state mandated program, it may not be a necessity, but the state librarian's office said Newton County is in danger of losing its state funding if the library is cut disproportionally to other departments.

Fleming called for library funding to be cut $200,961, which would be an 18 percent reduction, the second largest cut behind public works. According to Deputy State Librarian Julie Walker, Newton County would lose its $337,949 of state funding, as well as access to the PINES system, if the library is cut more than similar departments, such as recreation and other appropriations.

Walker said a couple of counties have voted to make significant cuts to the library, but when informed they would lose state funding have, the counties have reversed course. No Georgia county has lost state funding since the economic downturn.

"We don't hold down to the penny. We understand public safety, and other essentials are held harmless, but we look at similar agencies, such as parks and rec, equivalent agencies," Walker said. "We just want to see that the library is not completely out of proportion."

Schulz's budget called for a $101,496 cut, or 10 percent cut, similar to the cuts she made to other appropriations.

Both commissioners said the library's budget could be combined, so that library officials could allocate its money between the Covington and Porter Memorial branches as needed.

Fleming's budget calls for a $144,203 cut to recreation's $1.8 million budget, while Schulz called for no decrease. The recreation commission will have four added facilities to deal with during a full year in fiscal year 2012, so Schulz wanted to at least keep funding consistent with last year.

Fleming's budget calls for a $10,574 cut to DFACS' $132,174 budget, while Schulz's calls for funding to remain constant. Sims expressed concern about cutting DFACS' budget.

The Newton County Extension Service and 4-H program would not be cut under either budget.

Animal Control
Both Fleming and Schulz proposed cutting animal control and attempting to build up a volunteer worker base. Schulz said the county needed to seek out volunteer help in every department.

Chief Executive
Fleming proposed a $400,937 reduction from the current year, while Schulz cut $296,455 from the $2.64 million bugdet.

The chief executive budget has 13 employees and five commissioners and includes the chairman's office, board of commissioners, county Clerk, accounting and finance, purchasing, grants, county landscape architect and special projects.

It provides financial, legal and administrative assistance to all departments, essentially general government costs.

Government Buildings and Facilities
Schulz proposed cutting this department by $72,348 to $723,476, a savings that would be achieved through energy efficiency and energy use reduction. Chairman Morgan did not believe that level of savings was realistic.