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Newton commissioners throw out 2021 county spending plan
Set two public hearings for budget $1.07 million smaller
0628 CovNews County budget
From left, Commissioner Stan Edwards, Chairman Marcello Banes and Commissioner Ronnie Cowan talk before the Newton County Commission's special called meeting on the 2021 county budget Tuesday night.

COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County commissioners discarded their 2021 budget plan Tuesday night and will consider another that is more than $1 million smaller to allow a reduced property tax rate to fund it.

Public hearings are planned for the revised budget plan July 7 at 6 p.m. and July 14 at 5 p.m., after which commissioners will consider final approval at a special called meeting.

The new budget will not contain $1.07 million that had been planned for a new $135,000 computer server; as well as more than $300,000 to pay for budget changes throughout the year and a $500,000 transfer to the Capital Improvement Fund.

Instead, those items will be funded as needed throughout the year from excess tax collections rather than the budget’s General Fund, said County Manager Lloyd Kerr.

“By doing so, we will reduce the budget by that million-dollars-plus mark and we can reduce the (property tax) rate by three-tenths of a mill,” Kerr said. “Then that would give some relief to the taxpayers.”

After the meeting, Chairman Marcello Banes said he believed the revised plan was the best way to approve a 2021 budget. 

“The taxpayers are getting what they want and the services that they needed, and this is an opportunity to take some off the (property tax) rate,” he said.

“I believe it’s a win-win for the taxpayers, especially citizens whose (fire safety) rating is so high they can’t pay their homeowners’ insurance,” he said. “They need this and they’ve been asking for this.

“Others in the community who’ve been asking for more deputies on the road, they get an opportunity to get that,” Banes said.

The $105.6 million original budget was almost 7% higher than the 2020 budget. It included 76 new employees, 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.

The property tax rate — also known as the millage rate — was expected to bring in more than $3 million for the 2021 budget by remaining at its current level of 13.43 mills because of an expected 8% 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. The county finance department has not received final tax digest totals from the tax commissioner's office because the appeal process is not yet complete, said Finance Director Brittany White.

Banes asked Kerr to explain the new budget plan to commissioners after hearing some say that they had concerns the original budget plan was funded with a property tax rate that would effectively be a tax increase if kept at its current level.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said rising property values in the past year would lead to increases in property owners’ tax bills at a time when many are reeling from job losses related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Tax collections quite likely will be sluggish, which means that we need to be very careful in adopting a budget for 2021,” she said.

Commissioner Stan Edwards said he also had concerns about the level of spending in the proposed budget because of the unknown economic effects of the pandemic.

Commissioner Ronnie Cowan said he did not want to see the need for employee furloughs to help reduce 2021 spending.

He also said employee raises in the budget were “deserved” but he did not see the need to use increased tax revenues created by rising property values for budget needs.

 “The digest is moving pretty fast,” Cowan said. “I think it’s time to start slowing it down.”

Speakers during a public hearing before the meeting told commissioners they wanted them to address in the budget removal of a Confederate statue on the Covington Square.

The total budget is a combination of four funds, with the General Fund used for most county operations comprising 71% of the total. 

The General Fund totals $75.4 million, which is up 5% from the General Fund in the 2020 budget.

Almost 75% — or $3 of every $4 — of the 2021 General Fund will go to salaries and benefits for regular employees, and purchased or contracted services. 

Supplies, capital outlays, debt service and other uses make up the remainder, according to the county's budget document on its website.

Salaries and benefits are planned to increase 8.8%, from $42.6 million in 2020 to $46.4 million in 2021. 

Increases are due in part to all employees moving up a step in a pay plan the board approved in 2019, according to the document.

Purchased and contracted services are proposed to rise 8.1%, from $10.2 million to more than $11 million, according to the document.

The proposed budget also plans for a 7% increase in health insurance costs; funding new positions for two new fire stations; providing $505,000 for new sheriff's office vehicles and computer upgrades; and providing matching funds for almost $1.3 million in federal, state and local grants, according to the budget document.

The county government's property tax rate is levied in addition to the tax rate used to help fund the county school system.