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County talks strategic planning
Residents talk taxes
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The comments at Tuesday’s Newton County Board of Commissioners were as long as the meeting itself, as residents once again gave the board their opinions about a proposed millage rate increase and other issues, while Chairman Keith Ellis provided several updates on county business.

Planning to avoid a budget repeat

During this year’s budget cycle, commissioners lamented another year of tough decisions and agreed they didn’t want to end up in the same situation — facing cuts or raising the millage rate — again next year.

As a result, the board is planning its first mini strategic planning retreat for Friday, Aug. 16 at the FFA-FFCLA Center off Ga. Highway 36.

The board has its annual, normally two-day long, retreat in late winter or spring, but by that time the county is already back in budget mode preparing for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

While commissioners Levie Maddox, Lanier Sims and Nancy Schulz have given their informal support for a millage rate increase, they’ve also called on the county to immediately begin looking for ways to save money and increase revenues.

The retreat will tackle some of the biggest short and long-term issues; the initial list includes a discussion of:

• the landfill and overall solid waste operation

• the judicial center expansion

• transportation planning (including bridges)

• community centers

• financial reporting to commissioners.

The list is subject to change, as commissioners may want to address other topics.

Ellis said employees with the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission will facilitate the retreat for free; the cost to use the FFA Center’s facilities will also be free.

"Strategic planning is going to be a part of what we do every year," Ellis said Tuesday.

He said Wednesday that some of these issues may be multi-year issues as officials tries to pave the way for future boards.

Main Street and Gaither’s Plantation

Ellis also told the board he was planning to officially sign off on

canceling the county’s contract with the city of Covington and Main Street Covington Board of Directors.

The city requested the cancellation as part of the process of moving the Main Street program, which is responsible for downtown development and marketing, under the chamber.

In addition, canceling the contract allows the city and county to swap control of Main Street and Keep Covington-Newton Beautiful. Those two programs were jointly funded by the city and county, but now the city will pay for all of Main Street and the county will cover all of KCNB’s cost.

• Ellis said members from Newton, Walton, Morgan and Jasper counties met with state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black to discuss increasing agritourism opportunities in the area.

Ellis said Wednesday he’d like to see some the agritourism mindset applied to making Gaither’s Plantation a destination.

The county lost $27,000 taking care of the property, because of a lack of use; the property has previously been a popular destination for weddings and other events. Ellis said a committee of county employees and residents will meet to discuss ideas for the property.

Ellis had hoped to rent the property out as a grazing pasture for a local cattle farmer; however, despite five people expressing interest, no one officially bid on renting the land.

Citizens speak out against tax increase

Resident Dennis Taylor again urged the board not to vote for a millage rate increase, saying it would hinder economic development efforts.

Taylor said according to information on the Georgia Department of Revenue’s website, Newton County had one of the highest combined millage rates in the state, when you take into account the millage rates of the county, school system, emergency medical services and fire services.

Other counties with similarly high rates, like DeKalb and Rockdale counties, had much higher homestead tax exemptions, Taylor said, which allows homeowners in those counties to pay less in taxes on their primary residence.

Taylor said the latest SPLOST should have been used more wisely, including spending more money to pay off debt service, which would have negated $750,000 of spending in next year’s budget to pay off a loan taken to expand the county’s landfill.

Fellow resident J.J. Hayden agreed with that last point, saying commissioners were too concerned with pet projects; however, he believed a millage rate increased was needed at this time.

He said many people will not have their taxes increase because property values are still declining overall.

He also said he wants adequate services and invited those who don’t to move to a more rural county.

On a different but related note, Recreation board member Flemmie Pitts told the board he was seriously concerned about the recreation commission’s budget, which was cut by $90,555 to $1.62 million.

Pitts said the commission may not have money to hire a director or athletic coordinator, which are needed positions.

The commission is trying to balance the budget, but he said he didn’t know how that would happen.