Correction: The net tax digest dropped by $481 million from 2009 to 2010, not the $21 million figure that was improperly included in the original story. The $481 million reduction represents a nearly 17 percent year-to-year reduction. The 2010 net digest is $2.36 billion; the 2009 net digest was $2.84 billion.The Covington News strives to have its news reports be fair and accurate. It is our policy to promptly correct all factual mistakes. If you find an error, please report it to us by calling (770) 787-6397.
Pink slips, sad goodbyes and voices on the edge of tears greeted dozens of county employees during the two days following the approval of the $46.3 million rollback rate budget by the Newton County Board of Commissioners Tuesday.
E-mails sent to some county accounts were undeliverable and follow-up phone calls revealed that long-time department heads were among the 50 county employees who will be cut by July 1.
Department restructuring claimed Water Resources Director Karl Kelley and Planning and Development Director Marian Eisenberg. The water resources and engineering departments are being consolidated into the public works department. Chairman Kathy Morgan said that process will take between two and three months.
In addition, the planning department is being restructured, and it will take about 30 days. Morgan said this will enable better management practices and she said previously the restructuring will save on utility costs by limiting the use of certain rooms and buildings.
Laid-off employees will be notified in person over the next several days by their department director, Administrative Assistant John Middleton or Chairman Kathy Morgan, Morgan said in a Wednesday e-mail. Human resources personnel will prepare a package for each employee including the displacement letter, separation document and information they will need to file for unemployment per the personnel policy for Newton County, she said.
For the second straight year, the BOC had to cut millions from the budget, but this year tensions were even higher because more jobs were at stake and the board was split. The BOC voted 3-2 vote to approve the rollback rate budget, with commissioners Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming opposed. The board won’t officially adopt the 10.9 rollback rate until the July 6 BOC meeting because the budget now has to be re-advertised in The News for a minimum of 14 days.
Ewing and Fleming both expressed support for the 9.73 millage rate budget which would have been $43.5 million.
By choosing the $46.3 million budget, the board avoided cutting an additional 46 employees, the vast majority of whom would have come from public safety, Morgan said after Tuesday’s meeting.
She estimated that about 22 law enforcement personnel will be cut, as opposed to the nearly 60 positions that could have been cut under the 9.73 budget. The sheriff’s office, court system and tax commissioner’s office will all see 5 percent reductions from last year’s budgets, instead of the 14 percent reductions originally planned for them.
Brown said Thursday he has not yet made any cuts, and is going through budget line by line again before making any rushed decisions. Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler said had to cut one employee.
"I’m pleased they went with the 10.9 rate, but I wish they could have gone higher," said Dingler, who repeatedly pleaded for the BOC to raise the millage rate. "It’s a sad day in the county. They’re dismissing people as we speak."
During Tuesday’s budget public hearing, Dingler said between 94 percent and 98 percent of resident’s property values went down and many will see a reduction even with the county rollback rate and the county at 20 mills. She said at most residents would pay an extra $40 to $60 per year.
However, Hunter Hall, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, said raising taxes could negatively affect businesses and prolong the recession locally. Long-time industrial developer Jerry Silvio said the tax rate was a factor in industry’s decisions about where to locate.
Before the board made their final decision, they first entered into about an hour and a half executive session in Morgan’s office to discuss personnel and litigation. The tan uniforms of several sheriffs’ deputies intermingled with the more than a hundred county residents, employees and department heads gathered in the Historic Courthouse, waiting to discover their futures and those of their friends, as storms raged outside.
When the commissioners returned at 9:20 p.m., commissioners gave their final thoughts. Ewing and Fleming sided with the business leaders and said they felt that raising the millage rate would force businesses and industries to cut jobs, and they didn’t want to spare county jobs at the expense of private sector positions.
Fleming said if the county raised its rate, that would just add to the burden place on families and businesses that would already be facing a 1.79 mill increase from the schools and a possible 4 mill increase in Porterdale.
"That is a substantial tax increase for the homeowners in that part of the district, in that part of the county, and the business owners, (which) none of them can afford at this time," Fleming said.
Commissioners J.C. Henderson, Nancy Schulz and Earnest Simmons voted in favor of the rollback budget, and all three said they couldn’t support cutting public safety any further.
"I am a small business owner and understand the impact to small business and our business community," Schulz said. "My greatest concern is that I represent a district, as you can see the numbers from the sheriff’s department, that has a considerable amount of crime related statistics and I cannot see that as a business we are benefited by putting our citizens at risk for their safety nor our business at risk as well."
The conversation became tense and heated. Ewing said he was concerned by the personal attacks and emotion that had been injected into the budget process, and Fleming expressed disappointment at the scare tactics by county employees and other county officials when supporting the rollback rate. He said raising taxes was taking the easy way.
However, Simmons denounced the comments, saying that he doesn’t like to raise taxes, but his home had been broken into twice during his term in office.
"That’s not the first thing we do is raise taxes. Be honest with yourself. Don’t worry about being reelected. If you don’t want to elect me again that’s your choice, but I’m going to tell you the truth," Simmons said, and several employees burst into applause.
In addition to reducing the cuts to law enforcement and the courts, Morgan said the budget also includes money to open up the new Porter Memorial Branch Library, whenever construction is completed. Originally, the library was going to be left closed for all of FY2011 in order to save approximately $300,000; construction is expected to be completed around January 2011.
However, the cuts to public works are even greater than previously expected at 17 percent, or an extra $300,000 reduction.
Overall, the newly approved budget cuts nearly $2 million from last year's $48 million budget. The cuts were necessitated by continuing property devaluations. The county tax assessor’s office previously presented a finalized tax digest of $2.36 billion to local governments, down $481 million from last year’s tax digest. In revenue numbers, the county is projecting to collect $1.89 million less in total property taxes than last year based on the 10.9 millage rate.
Morgan said the board is still considering whether it wants to take over operation of its recycling centers and lawn care. The county could save as many 21 jobs and about $425,000, by reallocating employees to those positions and reducing their wages; the biggest savings would come from avoiding unemployment payments.
Morgan said she will provide a breakdown of the number of employees cut per department once all employees have been notified. To see the budget documents given to the commissioners visit covnews.com