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Lower Newton property tax rate planned to fund larger county budget
Assumes higher sales tax collections to help pay for 4% raises, $15 minimum wage for employees
Duane Ford
Newton Trails chairman Duane Ford speaks to Newton County commissioners as Finance Director Brittany White, Interim County Manager Jarvis Sims and Commissioner Stan Edwards listen during a public hearing on the 2023 county budget Tuesday at the Historic Courthouse in Covington. - photo by Tom Spigolon

COVINGTON, Ga. — County officials used property tax rates significantly lower than last year as the basis for three 2023 budget options they gave Newton County commissioners Tuesday, June 21.

However, Interim County Manager Jarvis Sims' proposed General Fund budgets represent about 8.2% more spending than 2022 and anticipate increased collections of sales taxes and lower workers compensation payments to offset decreased property tax revenue.

The proposed property tax rates, ranging from 9.454 to 9.706 mills, are all significantly lower than the current 11.145-mill rate that Sims recommended using to fund the first draft of the budget he gave commissioners May 31. 

Commissioners indicated on May 31 they wanted changes in the budget that included a lower property tax rate.

District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan said the tax rate for the 2022 budget had produced more revenue than expected after the tax digest increased 12% compared to the previous year. 

In addition, Cowan said property assessments this year also were generally higher based on rapidly increasing property assessments and will lead to sharply increased tax bills for residents if the rate is not lowered. 

Officials are anticipating about a 22% increase in property assessments this year that will raise the county's tax digest to $4.2 billion. The assessed value of property in Newton has almost doubled in six years from $2.16 billion in 2016. 

The amount of revenue any property tax rate will generate is based on the tax digest, which is the total assessed value of all taxable personal and real property in Newton County.

On Tuesday, Sims unveiled three budget options for commissioners that contained General Fund amounts of $82.9 million, $83.8 million and $84 million.

He said he concentrated on employee retention strategies in preparing the budget plans after the county government had problems in recent years retaining employees who left for higher-paying positions with neighboring governments or the private sector. 

Newton County also has been unable to fill some key positions, such as grant writer, for the comparatively lower pay it is offering, Sims said. 

Largest departmental increases were in the Sheriff's Office and Fire Services, which each were given more than $1.2 million increases compared to the previous year.

Sims said the $82.9 million option, designated as Option 1, is a 6.8% increase from the $77.6 million in the General Fund in the 2022 budget.

Option 1 is funded with a full rollback property tax rate of 9.454 mills. This option:

• Reduces property tax revenue by $2.38 million from a budget using last year's tax rate.

• Increases estimated Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) collections by $2.98 million to offset the lowered amount of property tax revenue.

• Reduces amount transferred to workers compensation fund by $500,000 — from $900,000 to $400,000.

• Anticipates Title Ad Valorem Tax (TAVT) revenue increase by $632,470.

• Gives step increases to employees totaling $1.4 million.

• Institutes a minimum wage of $15 an hour that costs an additional $300,000.

• Gives a 4% Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) to all employees totaling $1.13 million.

• Increases funding for employee insurance by $720,000, or 12%.

• Provides funding of $336,967 for 12 new positions, including six firefighters for Fire Services; a fiduciary compliance clerk for Probate Court; a special projects coordinator for Parks & Recreation; an elections technician for Elections & Registration; an administrative tech for the District Attorney's office; a senior kennel maintenance worker for Animal Services and an intern for Geographic Information Services (GIS).

However, White said the funding for the new workers is for half a year and none wil be hired until Jan. 1, 2023.

Option 2 with an $83.8 million General Fund is a 7.9% increase from 2022. This option:

• Supports a 9.671-mill property tax rate.

• Removes all new positions.

• Reduces a transfer to the workers compensation fund by $300,000 — from $900,000 to $600,000.

• Assumes the same LOST collections amount as Option 1.

• Property taxes reduced by $1.47 million.

Option 3 uses an almost $84 million General Fund that is 8.2% higher than 2022. This option:

• Reduces contingency by $250,000

• Reduces transfer to workers compensation fund by $500,000.

• Increases anticipated LOST collections by the same amount as the other options.

• Property taxes reduced by $1.32 million.

• Supports a 9.706-mill property tax rate.

Commissioners' approval of any of the proposed property tax rates will represent the third consecutive year the county government's tax rate will be decreased, White said.