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Property tax rate likely to drop in FY15
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Commissioners got some good news Tuesday night at their budget work session, including learning the county’s health insurance bill will be at least $339,660 lower next fiscal year and hearing that rising property values make it likely the board will be able to make good on its promise to lower the millage rate.

Based on “very, very early” property value projections – which County Manager John Middleton warned could change – the county might be able to lower the millage rate (informally called the property tax rate) from 11.54 to as low as 10.6 (or anywhere in between), a drop that could actually take the millage rate below the 10.91 rate it was at before the board voted to raise it last July.

At the 10.6 rate, Middleton said the county would collect around $21 million in property tax revenue, only slightly lower than last years’ projected collections of $21.3 million — though the numbers aren’t an apples-to-apples comparison because of the change in the way motor vehicle taxes are paid. (Because new motor vehicles are charged an upfront sales tax, instead of an annual ad valorem tax – known as the birthday tax after the date it’s generally due — the revenue is shifted to a different area.)

After the meeting, Chairman Keith Ellis said the board wasn’t committing to lowering the rate all the way to 10.6 — that would be premature given the fact the Newton County Tax Assessor’s office is still working with property value numbers – but he did pledge to lower the tax rate. When the Board of Commissioners voted last year to increase the rate from 10.91 to 11.54, the motion came with a provision to try to lower the rate within two years.
Even at the 10.6 rate, initial projections actually show the county’s total general fund revenue increasing by $457,747 to $46.4 million. (The total doesn’t include the solid waste/landfill or water funds, which are in separate funds.)

While the budget picture looks rosy for the first time since the housing market collapse in 2008 — thanks to house sale prices continually increasing and construction and development continuing to pick up — commissioners still face the difficult task of sorting through department’s increased spending requests.

Initial expenses were $53.16 million for fiscal year ’15 (which will run from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015), as submitted by all departments and appropriations (appropriations are the groups that have their budgets provided partially by the county, such as senior services, the library system and recreation).

Middleton cautioned that because the county is changing the budget process by getting commissioners involved earlier, these requests have not been trimmed down as much by county administration as they usually would by the time they come before the board.

The county is having a series of budget committee meetings over the next couple weeks, where some of that cutting will inevitably come, based on conversations Tuesday night. The next meeting is at 8:30 a.m. today, when community services and appropriations will be discussed.

County employees made whole
One of the biggest changes for county employees is that they won’t have any furlough days next fiscal year, the final step in a three-year process that reversed the 15 furlough days employees were given in 2009.
Over the course of a 52-week year, missing the equivalent of three work weeks of pay cost employees 5 percent of their annual salary.

By the time the FY2015 budget is approved, the board will have restored five paid days back to the employees during each of the past three years.

The days come in the form of five working days and the restoration of 10 paid holidays. During the past few years, employees wouldn’t get holiday pays for holidays like Christmas; in addition, the county added additional “unpaid holidays,” which acted as furlough days, where the county would shut down to the public.

Health insurance savings
In his presentation Tuesday, insurance agent Gary Massey, who is contracted by the county, told the board its years of working to reign in health insurance costs was paying off.

This current year, the county paid a total of $6.05 million to Blue Cross/Blue Shield for health insurance, but when the county puts its health insurance out to bid, CIGNA came back with two plans that Massey said will offer at least equal coverage and save the county money.

CIGNA’s plans will either cost the county $5.68 million or $5.71 million. The more expensive option includes a provision to improve employee prices for some brand name drugs; the county has placed an emphasis on having employees use generic drugs whenever possible.

Massey pointed out that CIGNA was continuing to emphasize its wellness program, which seeks to help employees stay healthier on the front end and avoid costs later.