COVINGTON, Ga. – The Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted to approve the county’s fiscal year 2018 budget during a special called meeting Tuesday night at the Historic Courthouse.
This year’s budget maintains last year’s millage rate of 13.441 but, because of an increase in property tax assessments, will require a tax increase.
The new budget gives all county employees, except sworn firefighters and deputies, a 5% percent cost of living adjustment (COLA). Firefighters and deputies will receive market adjustment pay increases consistent with Market Analysis and Recommendations study presented to the BOC in May.
The raises will be phased in in two increments. Employees receiving the COLA will receive a 3 percent increase effective July 1 and another 2 percent effective Jan 1, 2018. Employees receiving the market analysis increase will receive half in July and half in January.
Low salaries have been seen as an impediment to attracting and retaining and qualified and experienced county employees, especially deputies and firefighters. Commissioners expressed hope the salary increases will help address that problem.
The new budget also calls for the county to transfer money into its cash reserves, funds balance and contingency fund.
Prior to the final vote on the original budget resolution, District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards told commissioners that more than one homeowner had called him and said because of the tax increase they will no longer be able to afford to stay in their home.
Edwards offered a different budget plan.
“I am proposing a balanced budget with total revenues of $58,627,277.71. That is a millage rate of 13.066, a .37 mills decrease over what is currently proposed in the current motion,” he said.
Edwards said the budget he was proposing still constituted a tax increase.
“It’s just somewhat less of what is currently on the floor,” he said.
Edwards told commissioners his budget proposal would give all county employees a 5 percent COLA, across the board. He said his proposal did not include the market study pay increases.
He also said his budget also did not include reserves for fiscal year changes totaling $660,790 that were in the previously proposed budget.
“Mine takes that away as well. We have Shire money coming in later in the year I hope can fill that gap,” he said.
Edwards said that he would be willing to support a 5 percent COLA for employees in the FY19 budget if financial conditions are right.
County Manager Lloyd Kerr told commissioners that approving Edwards’ resolution would involve new public hearings
“We would have to start the hearing process all over for the millage rate, as well as for the budget. We would have to go back and revise all of those numbers and begin the hearing process again,” he said.
Kerr said the timing of the publication and sending out of tax notices for property owners could also be affected.
“Our tax commissioner has a deadline that she has to meet in order to get those printed in a timely fashion in order to meet the October deadline for those to be in people’s hands,” he said.
Public safety and the county’s financial stability were reasons cited by members before they rejected Edward’s 11th-hour proposal.
District Commissioner Lanier Sims said he was concerned about employees and cash reserves.
“My biggest concerns with the proposed budget: one is definitely the employees, two is the reserves,” he said. “I’ve been with this board for seven years and it seems every year we have an emergency we did not plan for. If there’s an emergency at the Sheriff’s Department, we have to take care of it. If there’s an emergency at the landfill, we have to take care of it.
“This is an opportunity to start building reserves back and hopefully increase our credit rating, as it has also had a hit over these last few years.”
District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan said while he agreed with Edwards in spirit, replenishing the cash reserves and trying to stem the loss of public safety employees was a priority for the BOC at the start of the budget process.
“Stan, I agree with you in spirit. I think though, our goal as we listed it at the beginning of this process was to replenish our cash reserves and our fund balances and to provide benefits for our employees, but also to look at public safety in the terms of people we are losing,” he said.
“The only method we have from this board of commissioners is pay and benefits. I think the original proposed budget accomplished most of that. I’m not comfortable with the modified proposal.”
The Edwards budget proposal failed by a 3-1 vote with Sims, Cowan and District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz voting against it.
Prior to the vote on the original budget proposal, Schulz echoed Cowan’s sentiments.
“We’ve got to get our employees stable. We’ve got to have a competitive rate for our employees, especially our public safety employees. We can’t continue to lose public safety employees,” she said, “Most important for me as well is the fact that we have to stabilize our balances. We can’t be fiscally irresponsible.”
The vote on the original budget proposal passed by a 3-1 vote, with Sims, Schulz and Cowan voting in favor of the budget. District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson recused himself from both votes.
According to the minutes of the meeting prepared by County Clerk Jackie Smith, "Commissioner Henderson recused and abstained due to a conflict of interest pursuant to the ethics ordinance.”
“The passage of the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget is a testament to the goal this Newton County Board of Commissioners set, even as far back as January, when we first began to come together as a board,” Chairman Marcello Banes said in a statement Wednesday. “To make Newton County a better place to want to come to work and remain working with, along with providing first-rate public safety is among the many things we strive to accomplish. Thanks to the desire of this board and the hard work and dedication of our finance and human resources staff members we were able to do that in the coming year’s budget.”