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County's top goal: lower millage rate
Commissioners discuss millage, revenue, employee atmosphere
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The Newton County Board of Commissioners has begun setting its strategic goals, and topping the list is reducing the millage rate, a promise commissioners made to the public when the board raised the rate earlier this year.

At their third strategic planning meeting Thursday evening, commissioners decided the best way to lower the tax rate would be to generate non-property tax revenue, and Chairman Keith Ellis is challenging elected officials and staff to generate an additional $2 million.

Commissioners saw potential opportunities in increasing existing revenue sources — grants and sales tax revenue — and by creating new streams of revenue.

The board has talked for years about hiring a grant writer to help it bring more federal and state dollars to the county; however, given the economic decline, officials agreed there were fewer grants available. Strategic plan facilitator Jim Dove, with the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, agreed less public money was available but said there could be money from private foundations.

Officials also discussed paying a grant writer on commission and hiring a firm to do the work. However, Commissioner Lanier Sims said that practice was becoming less common because grants are becoming scarcer. The county has budgeted $50,000 for a grant writer this budget year.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson said that Sheriff’s Office grant writer Apryle Jones said she is generally notified of all the grants the NCSO applies for, though board members noted that many of the grants, often from the U.S. Justice Department, recur annually.

Increasing sales tax revenue is a hope, but the way to drive that up significantly is to increase the number of commercial businesses, something officials agreed would require the county to have a higher per capita income. The chamber’s stated goal for years has been to recruit higher-paying industries, but that’s a long-term effort that can’t be counted on in the short term.

Ellis said he wanted to promote getting more adults back in school in the hope of helping them qualify for better-paying jobs, and noted the county’s four colleges were an asset.

Finding new revenue sources was a less concrete discussion, with officials tossing out a range of ideas, including renting out vacant office space, particularly the third floor of the administration building, allowing other counties to pay to dump trash at the landfill, and even selling excess county property.

Commissioner Levie Maddox said he believes the only short-term way to lower the millage rate is to cut expenses through streamlining or consolidating operations, privatization and increasing efficiency. The energy audits of all county buildings are an example of this.

The county’s landfill and recycling centers have been a common topic in the search to find savings, increase revenue or pursue privatization. The board made discussing options at the landfill a priority this year, but no public plans have been announced, and no update has been given on prior discussions of charging a fee to use the recycling centers.

The county’s emergency medical services — which are currently contracted with Newton Medical Center — were also talked about as a possible privatization candidate. Middleton said counties are not required by law to provide EMS. Dove said he knows of three other counties in the northeast region that have privatized their EMS.

The board spent a lot of time discussing whether water revenues could be used to lower the property tax burden; however, the long-held view is that counties aren’t able to move money from their water fund to the general fund. Unlike cities, which have much more flexibility to use utility revenues to subsidize property taxes, counties must keep their funds separate. Water operations — the county produces and sells water wholesale to cities, the water authority and other groups — are funded by water sale revenues. However, the board asked the county attorney’s office to explore the issue to see if there is any leeway in state law.

Other objectives the board wants to implement to help lower the millage rate and have better control of the budget include going to a two-year budget cycle and having a four-year plan. County Manager John Middleton said a two-year budget cycle allows the county to better maximize its resources, particularly when it comes to making capital purchases across two years. In addition, the county currently spends six months out of each year preparing a budget, whereas a two-year budget cycle might shave off some time.

Goal 2: Organization health

Officials expressed concern over the fact that county employees had suffered during the economic downturn, including furlough days and no pay raises for seven years. As a result, some county employees have left for higher-paying jobs elsewhere, and the county is worried about further attrition.

Ellis said View Point Health, a state health organization that operates locally, estimates it costs 10 percent of a position’s salary to get a new employee trained. The county could save money through retention, Ellis said.

Officials agreed they might not be able to keep up with larger cities — including some of the new cities being created in more affluent parts of Metro Atlanta — but want Newton County to remain competitive. Commissioner Nancy Schulz said some communities are offering more in salaries to the detriment of benefits packages, which can appeal to younger employees who may not need good health insurance plans and prefer more cash.

As far as benefits go, Ellis said he has found that many employees either don’t know their benefit options — particularly retirement investing — or aren’t using them. More education and, in some cases, simplifying the choices available, should be a priority, he said.

The county also has a program to help employees struggling with drug or alcohol addiction or other issues if those employees come to their bosses before a crisis.

Other objectives include forming a committee of county employees and a committee of county department heads to solicit feedback.

Maddox also said there needs to be a review of human resources processes, particularly in cases where there are combined departments with county and city employees, noting there have been cases whereby the county has a one-strike policy, while the city does not.

Maddox also called for continued investment in training and technology.

The board decided the best way to measure its success was to see if retention levels increased, insurance premiums remained reasonable and employee attendance was high without staffers calling in sick all the time — and if employee surveys were positive.

The board also discussed the Bear Creek Reservoir as a goal, and county attorney Jenny Carter said the reservoir remains on the verge of getting the 404 environmental permit needed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction.

The board also talked about managing its infrastructure, including bridges and roads, county buildings, and county equipment and vehicles. Ellis said the county is working on a bridge study to determine which bridges need what repairs, but needs a road study for the same reason. The county is currently exploring abandoning roads in several subdivisions to save on maintenance costs.

By having better long-term maintenance plans for major infrastructure, the county will also be better able to plan for upcoming SPLOSTs (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes), the 1 percent sales tax that is voted on by county residents to be used for capital projects.

The county discussed other goals, including quality of life and future planning, but will delve into more goals at its next meeting, set for 6 p.m., Oct. 28 at the Historic Courthouse.