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Newton board considering full property tax rate rollback for 2021 budget
Newton County Historic Courthouse
Newton County Historic Courthouse - Mason Wittner | The Covington News

COVINGTON, Ga. — County commissioners will get the chance to fully roll back the 2020 property tax rate to its lowest level in six years and still see some increased revenue for its new budget.

County Manager Lloyd Kerr told Newton County commissioners Tuesday, July 6, the new 2021 budget he was proposing assumes a full rollback property tax rate that is almost 4% less than last year.

As a result, use of a proposed tax rate of 12.917 mills — the lowest rate since 2014  — spares the county from holding three public hearings because it will not be a “tax increase” as defined by the state law known as the “Property Taxpayers Bill of Rights,” said Finance Director Brittany White.

Officials expected the property tax rate, or millage rate, to generate more than $3 million in additional revenue to help fund the 2021 county government budget if it remained at last year’s level of 13.43 mills because of a 7% increase in assessed property values in the tax digest.

The tax digest is the total taxable value of all real and personal property within Newton County.

State law requires that calculation of the digest also include a rollback property tax rate that will produce the same total revenue on the current year's new digest that last year's tax rate would have produced if no reassessments occurred, White said.

But if a local government or school district in Georgia approves the rollback tax rate, they are not required to hold public hearings if increases come from new and improved property, White said. 

The original $105.6 million budget for 2021 that commissioners considered in late June was almost 7% higher than the 2020 budget.

It also used the same 13.43-mill property tax rate as last year to calculate expected revenue in part because county officials did not have final tax digest numbers, White said.

Because last year’s rate amounted to a tax increase, county commissioners said they had concerns about approving the budget at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic had negatively affected many households’ finances.

Kerr and White then cut $1.07 million planned for purchase of a new computer server and other items.

However, when the tax digest numbers were released, they showed that more revenue would potentially come in from property taxes than originally believed, White said.

That allowed finance officials to recommend the rollback tax rate and a revised budget that totals $104.58 million and is almost 6% larger than the 2020 budget, White said.

It also assumes 4% more revenue from property taxes and retains funding for 76 new employees requested in the old budget, including 14 new sheriff's deputies and 18 new firefighters, according to county officials and documents on the county website. 

The new firefighters will help man new fire stations under construction on Gum Creek Road in Oxford, and planned for Dixie Road in eastern Newton.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz noted the county jail had been operating at less than half its inmate capacity.

She asked Sheriff Ezell Brown if some of his requested positions for new deputies  — some of whom would serve as jailers — could be cut to free up money to increase current deputies’ pay.

Brown said the jail’s relatively low inmate population was due to the sheriff’s office enforcing social distancing rules inside the jail to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

City police departments had arranged not to send as many of their arrestees, and judges had allowed more inmates to be released on parole or work release, because of the need for space for social distancing, Brown said.

If the prevalence of the disease subsides, the jailer positions will be needed to handle the influx of inmates as the jail reaches 95% capacity, Brown said.

Public hearings on the budget are planned for Tuesday, July 14, at 5 p.m., and July 21 at 6 p.m. before budget adoption during the July 21 regular meeting at 7 p.m., White said.