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Majority of BOC leaning toward tax hike to support public safety raises
County - LOCAL

COVINGTON, Ga. – Four of five members of the Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) said Tuesday night they either support or are leaning toward supporting a 0.20 increase in the county’s millage rate to make public safety salaries competitive with surrounding counties and enhance the county’s ability to recruit and retain deputies and firefighters.

The millage rate would go from 13.44 to 13.64 under the proposal.

County Manager Lloyd Kerr and Finance Director Nicole Cross presented two budget options, A and B, to commissioners at the BOC’s May 30 work session. Option B, which contains the tax hike, would give the county’s sworn sheriff’s office deputies and fire service operations employees pay increases consistent with recommendations made in a market analysis of county salaries. The proposed budget would also give all non-public safety county employees a 5 percent cost of living adjustment. Salary increases would take effect in January 2018.

Option B would also transfer $500,000 into the county’s cash reserve and $300,000 into the fund balance. Kerr said the .20 increase would add approximately $20 per $100,000 of the assessed value of a home to tax bills.

Option A, which maintains the millage at the current 13.44 rate gives all non-public safety county employees a 5 percent cost of living adjustment while giving sworn deputies and fire operations personnel either a 5 percent increase or an increase to the new proposed minimum, whichever is greater. Option A would transfer $500,000 into the cash reserve and $225,411 into the fund balance. Salary increases would take effect in January 2018.

Commissioner Lanier Sims said he wants to examine the whole budget but he is leaning toward option B.

“Our main objective was to take care of the employees. We knew we wanted to do at least 5 percent, but after going through the exercises and seeing where our deputies and our firefighters compare to other counties, I knew then that we had to go above that 5 percent to get them as close to being whole as possible,” he said.

Addressing the need for quick public safety response times, Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she is also leaning toward option B.

“We need deputies, we need to make sure that we are moving toward a comparable salary,” she said.

Schulz also said she wants to examine the budget plan further.

Commissioner Ronnie Cowan said he supports option B even though as a Republican, he is supposed to be on the “no millage rate increase side.”

“I understand that. But I do understand, too, that for people out there in this community, we’re struggling to hire law enforcement officers and firefighters. We’ve got to find a way provide services,” he said.

Citing the recently extended Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) and new charges for trash disposal for a large portion of citizens in the county, Commissioner Stan Edwards said he supports option A, which includes no millage rate increase.

“We’ve had free trash for so many years, and now that’s, in essence, another tax, whether it’s levied or not,” he said. “Option A is the option I’ll support.”

Commissioner J.C. Henderson supported option B, saying now is the time to stop kicking the can down the road in regards to public safety salaries.

“Option B would give the opportunity to do something for our employees, stop the bleeding and hopefully retain first responders,” he said.

The budget proposals are contingent on where the county’s tax digest comes in. This year’s digest is expected to show an increase of 5 percent. Cross said that an increase of 6.5 percent would make option B possible without a millage rate increase.

The next BOC work session is scheduled for Wednesday, June 7, at 6 p.m.