The Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) heard from constitutional officers from the horseshoe at the Newton County Historic Courthouse Thursday on why their respective budgets needed to be increased.
The BOC also began to tackle major, difficult and far-reaching options such as a reduction in appropriation budgets, closing the county’s convenience centers, charging for the use of those convenience centers, a hiring freeze and a millage increase in order to balance the county’s budget for fiscal year 2017.
Interim County Manager Lloyd Kerr started Thursday’s meeting by telling the BOC his staff has been at work since the beginning of May trying to cut back on requests for fiscal year 2017. Many departments were able to cut back on their requested budgets, but some have still been unable to do so.
Elected officials who run some of the departments still looking to request more in fiscal year 2017 than they did in fiscal year 2016, came before the BOC Thursday. Judges Henry Baker (probate court) and Sherri Roberts (juvenile court), Newton County Public Defender Anthony Carter and Newton County Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler all stated their cases. Clerk of Courts Linda Hayes and Sheriff Ezell Brown were not present and were unable to present their cases to the BOC Thursday.
Baker was requesting $8,344 more than the magistrate court spent in fiscal year 2016 and $31,267 more than the probate court spent in fiscal year 2016. Roberts was seeking $146,783 more than juvenile court spent in fiscal year 2016. Carter was asking for $78,114 more than in fiscal year 2016. Dingler was asking for $25,274 more than the tax commissioner’s office spent in fiscal year 2016.
The board has made no decision on what to do about the budgets of the departments that came in front of them Thursday evening.
Kerr told the BOC that to balance the budget, he felt, more than a reduction in the requested expenditures of $64,662 was needed to reach projected revenues of $52,770,661.
Before presenting Thursday, departments reduced budgets, so that the request for fiscal year 2017 is 54,371,873.
“It appears that the most efficient way or best way for us to balance the budget is to do multiple things,” Kerr said.
One way to balance the budget, Kerr said, is to go back to the budget of fiscal year 2016, which was $53,778,857.
Another step is to reduce what he calls “outside” appropriations by 20 percent. Outside appropriations are the Newton County DFCS, library, mental and physical health, the chamber of commerce, CASA, Head Start, Community Partnership, Washington Street Community Center and Nelson Heights Community Center.
Along with this option, a credit of $750,000 for the Covington library’s new HVAC unit would be taken by the county out of the library’s fiscal year 2017 appropriation of $919,379.
A third option to balance the budget, according to Kerr, is to institute a hiring freeze on open positions, with the exception public safety entry level positions.
The final way to balance the budget that Kerr mentioned was to close or charge for the county’s convenience centers.
“I realize these are very rather drastic options but I’ll also say these are things that we need to consider as possible solutions,” Kerr said. “I know raising the millage rate is something we don’t even really want to talk about.
“As it stands right now those are the only areas that I can see that we have to save money.”
Kerr sought direction from the board on which of his options to pursue going forward. All the options were met with trepidation, as board members stated the public’s fondness of the convenience centers, the importance of the county’s appropriations.
“It would be a sad day if we allow the library only to be open a couple of days a week, and the mental health and physical health department does a great deal in our community and for our constituency,” Chair Keith Ellis said. “Our community would take a hit.”
Douglas said he could not vote to close the county’s convenience centers, which were later discussed concerning a possible fee.
The BOC budgeted $1 million in convenience center fees for fiscal year 2016, but a fee system based on vehicular decals was unable to be put in to place.
“We racked our brains as to how we could cover all the logistics necessary in a fair and equitable way to have fees assessed from the recycling centers,” Kerr said. “As I see it, as long as we operate the centers, we will not be collecting revenue from them and that is a drain on the county.”
District 5 Commissioner Levie Maddox told the board that he agreed with the convenience centers being a big drain on county finances. However, he didn’t agree with the approach of trimming from the appropriations before looking at other areas of savings.
First, he said, he would close six of the 11 convenience center and scale down and charge $75 per year for the other five. Then, he said he would look to trim the sheriff’s budget by 3 percent.
“His budget has grown the last three years, and by far is the largest budget,” Maddox said. “If pain has to be felt, it has to be felt everywhere.”
Maddox also said he would privatize the ambulance service and review the policy of keeping law enforcement personnel at the county’s administration building and historic courthouse.
Ellis also offered another option to cutting the appropriations budgets. He suggested using $1.3 million in revenue from cutting timber in the basin of the proposed Bear Creek Water Supply Reservoir.
“Let’s look at that $1.3 million, but let’s not close the library,” Ellis said.
Before adjourning, the board came to a consensus to look into the 20 percent reduction of appropriations, but said they first wanted to alert each appropriation of the change and hear from them during the next budget meeting set for June 6, beginning at 6 p.m.