Newton County officially announced Thursday the "tentative" adoption a 12.99 millage rate for county operations in fiscal year 2016, as county commissioners emphasized that the tax hike represents a shift in millage rather than a significant increase in spending.
12.99 is 21.87% more than the “Rollback Millage Rate” of 10.659 calculated by the state and 1.765 more than the 2015 millage rate of 11.225. Indigent care, a separate line item that accounted for a millage of 1.2 last year, has been eliminated, while .3 of the 12.99 county millage has been set aside for the first quarter of hospital indigent care.
Newton County Medical Center is expected to enter a lease agreement with Piedmont Health Care in October, at which point the county will no longer subsidize indigent care.
Three commissioners have indicated they are prepared to vote for the increase, which includes raises for county employees, fire fighters, and Sheriff's deputies, as well as adjustments for E911, impact fees, solid waste, and legal fees.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz said last week there was “no question” the millage would increase next year, adding that the budget has been scoured for any waste.
“After careful scrutiny, I believe a budget not to exceed $53,700,000 is best for providing the services necessary to operate Newton County efficiently," Schulz said at the last Board of Commissioners meeting. “The only way to responsibly lower the millage is to continue to work together through the citizen engagement we’ve begun and I strongly encourage that we revisit and update the strategic plan as soon as possible."
On Thursday, Schulz said that the board is not growing government; it is "providing the services that the residents of Newton County are requiring."
She emphasized that the overall net increase to property taxes would be .5.
"We're shifting around different millages to accurately reflect the finances of the county," she said.
Earlier this month, Commissioner Levie Maddox signaled his willingness to support a tax increase and took his fellow commissioners to task for failing to come up with alternatives.
“I didn’t hear anyone suggest anything significant to cut,” he said at a budget meeting, adding that county employees need a realistic operational budget to provide services.
“Anything short of that is haphazard and not forward-thinking for the positive health of this community,” Maddox said.
Commissioner Lanier Sims said Thursday that he was prepared to vote for an increase to 12.99, after confirming a few details.
“Of course I would like to see it lower,” Sims said. “We [on the Board] do have to take full responsibility; the biggest issue with this year’s budget is a correction of how the budget has been done in years past.”
The board has sought to compensate in areas that have been underfunded or incorrectly budgeted in the past, including E911, impact fees, solid waste, and legal costs.
“This year I believe it will be the most accurate budget this county has ever had,” Sims said.
On Friday, Maddox echoed his colleagues, acknowledging that a tax increase is a last resort.
"Citizens need to understand that it's not an increase in overall spending, we just haven't budgeted the entire amount for a number of years," he said, referring to E911 and the solid waste program. "If we don't stand up and take charge in the areas of planning and finance, and invest in some technology, the coommunity is going to be in a bad position down the road."
Some citizens were incensed at the prospect of a tax increase and voiced their concerns at the last Board of Commissioners meeting.
“Raising taxes in Newton County at this time would be the worst thing this board could possibly do,” said Dennis Taylor.
Karen Brooks said she would “not accept” the millage rate going up.
According to the county's official notice, "All concerned citizens are invited to the public hearings on this tax increase to be held at the Newton County Historic Courthouse - Boardroom, 1124 Clark Street, on July 7, 2015 at 11:00 AM and 6:30 PM, and on July 20, 2015 at 6:30 PM."