COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County Schools Board of Education held the first of three public hearings concerning the millage rate Tuesday night — no one spoke for or against the matter.
The board has proposed to maintain the same millage rate of 19.788 as the year before, but because county property assessments increased since last year, property taxes are anticipated to increase as well, which requires the board to announce that it is increasing taxes and host three public hearings.
During the meeting, Newton County Schools Executive Financial Manager Erica Robinson made a brief presentation showing a 13-year history of the M&O tax digest, potential impact of the millage rate adjustment on local revenue and how it compared financially to other school systems of similar size and make up.
According to information from the school system, the current tax digest is $3,032,654,860. If the mill rate is approved to stay at 19.788, the projected total gross revenue generated from the digest would be more than $60 million. After accounting for Local Fair Share, the net revenue would be $44.8 million.
If the millage rate were to be rolled back to 19.031, the total gross revenue would be $57.7 million; only $42.5 after Local Fair Share is accounted for.
By comparison, Rockdale has a mill rate of 24.7; Henry has a mill rate of 23.628; DeKalb has a mill rate of 23.080; Walton has a mill rate of 20.9; Douglas has a mill rate of 20.75; Fayette has a mill rate of 20.521; and Clarke has a mill rate of 20. Forsyth, Social Circle City, Jasper, Griffin-Spalding and Morgan school systems have mill rates lower than Newton.
Before the meeting to discuss the millage rate, the board held a special-called budget meeting.
The proposed general fund budget for fiscal year 2021 is $191.2 million — about $4.5 million less than last year. Approximately $168.2 million (88% of total expenditures) were for salaries and benefits.
Robinson said typically there were more options for the proposed budget, but because of the pandemic and several unknowns surrounding the upcoming year, she said it was in the best interest to be as conservative as possible.
While analyzing a four-year projection that showed the school system “in the red” for 2022-2023, board member Eddie Johnson said he thought it would be wise to increase the millage rate to 20 now to be better prepared for the future.
“I think there’s a better way we can probably prepare for it,” Johnson said. “We can start now and try to ease the burden in the year 2021-2022 by increasing our millage rate and revenue. I just think it would be near-sighted not to do that now, in light of we have no true definition or direction as to what our revenue streams are. But we can capture something by readjusting our millage rate.
“If we don’t do it now, when?” Johnson asked, rhetorically. “Now is no better time — let’s not waste it… You’ve got your philosophy, and that’s all well and good, but that will buy nothing. We’ve got to make the hard decisions moving forward on this budget, and it has to do with the amount of funds that we raise through the millage rate. Period.”
Board member Shakila Henderson-Baker disagreed. She said now wasn’t the time to further increase taxes in light of the pandemic’s harsh impact on the economy.
“When you talk about increasing a millage rate, that’s to say that you have the funds to come in,” Henderson-Baker said. “Because when you increase it, you increase it for the taxpayers. Unfortunately, in the wake of the very thing that’s going on, people have lost jobs. People are not working. People have reduced hours. So even if you are to increase it, it does not necessarily mean those funds will come in if they cannot pay. So that does not really make a lot of sense.”
Board member Trey Bailey understood Johnson’s view on the importance of preparing for the future, but he also believed now wasn’t the best time. He also said projections from so far out have not been accurate in the past and doubted they were now.
“You know, you (Johnson) and I align on most everything in these meetings, but this is the only one that I think you and I arm wrestle a little bit” Bailey said. “If anything, prior to this COVID outbreak, I was prepared to come in here and ask for another reduction in the millage rate. But now seeing that I don’t see that is a reasonable solution looking forward, knowing we have increased expenses.
“I agree with all of the things you’re saying; I just think it’s a matter of timing for me,” he continued. “To me, meeting in the middle is saying. ‘Well, maybe we don’t move it this year.’ But am I willing to look at for the next couple of years to make sure we don’t get in that red? Absolutely. Because we can’t go into the red. That’s a terrible thing to do, and I don’t want to get behind the 8-ball either. So I’m saying I agree with you; it’s just probably a matter of timing.”
“And timing is everything,” Johnson said.
Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey assured the board and public watching via Youtube that the school system was in sound financial shape.
“For the record,” Fuhrey said. “We’re not going to get into the red. We’ll be working and watching and making adjustments and keeping you informed about the things that we’ll do to protect us from getting into a situation where we have a red bottom line… We recognize that we will be closely monitoring our budget, and this board in particular is probably one of the only boards in the state that (looks at the budget) more than one time a year.”
The board will likely approve a tentative budget Tuesday, July 21, and approve the school system's final budget in August.
Two more public hearings to discuss the millage rate will be held Tuesday, July 21, at 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.