COVINGTON, Ga. –
The Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) established its budget priorities for the coming year at its budget work session May 9.
Employee compensation, the county’s fund balance and cash reserves and staying within the current millage rate are the priorities for the BOC as it moves through the fiscal year 2018 budget process.
A substantial amount of conversation was devoted to employee compensation with all commissioners voicing support for employee pay raises. The suggestions ranged an across the board increase in salary for all county employees to a two tiered approach which would allow one increase for non-public safety employees with a different amount for firefighters and sheriff’s deputies.
County Manager Lloyd Kerr told commissioners starting salaries and salary ranges for general Newton County employees lag behind their counterparts in surrounding counties by an average of close to 10 percent. Kerr said that pay for the county’s public safety employees, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies, is as much as 15 to 20 percent behind surrounding counties.
He said there are currently 18 openings in the fire department and at least double that amount of openings with the sheriff’s department.
“The difficulty is twofold,” he said. “Not just getting people to look at the county as a possible place of employment, but then after we bring them in and train them and spend money getting them up to speed, we tend to lose people to other counties and municipalities, primarily about the pay.”
Kerr told BOC that an across the board raise for all employees would cost the county approximately $1.3 million. He also said the two tiered plan would cost more.
County Finance Director Nicole Cross told the commissioners based on the current tax digest, the county will see a 5 percent, or just under $1.4 million, increase in revenue. Commissioner Stan Edwards said if the increase in the tax digest will go toward employee raises, he will be in favor of leaving the millage rate where it is.
“I’m comfortable with leaving the millage rate where it is, even with the digest increase,” he said. “If that increase is used for payroll increases for our employees.”
Commissioner Ronnie Cowan discussed the importance of filling the current vacant positions before allowing the creation of new positions.
“I would suggest that if there is an allocated position that’s not filled, we still plug money in for that, but that we not, at this juncture, entertain any new staffing positions,” he said.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz also voiced support for employee raises before creating new positions.
“My priorities are our employees have to be, I don’t know if they can be made whole,” she said. “But we need to move in that direction. I don’t believe that we need to fill new positions. We need to focus on the people that we have now, and get them to a higher pay scale.
Commissioner J.C. Henderson suggested that commissioners consider a tax increase in order to provide raises for public safety.
“I don’t believe that we can’t do a tax increase to make sure that our public safety is at the same level as all others,” he said.
Cross also told BOC members it is important for the county to improve its unrestricted fund balance and cash reserve balance. She talked about a five-year plan for building the fund balance, but said replenishing the cash reserve balance was more urgent.
“I have budgeted this plan at three years,” she said. “I think it’s essential to build a cash reserve. I think a five year plan is just too long.”
Cross described the plan as aggressive, with the first year of the plan calling for moving $500,000 into the fund and the last year calling for moving $1.25 million into the fund. According to the plan, at the end of three years, the county will have a cash reserve of $2.5 million. She told the BOC that the county currently has zero cash reserve.
The county has a policy which requires it to maintain both an unrestricted fund balance at a certain level and a cash reserve.
Commissioners also heard about increases in the cost of health insurance for county employees for the next fiscal year.
The BOC has additional budget work sessions scheduled for Monday, May 15, Wednesday, May 17 and Wednesday, May 24. All work sessions are at 6 p.m. at the Newton County Historic Courthouse and are open to the public.