The Board of Commissioners held their final budget work session Monday night, and residents and county department heads used the opportunity to let the board know they opposed the proposed $5.25 million of cuts to this year’s budget.
Sheriff Ezell Brown said the proposed 13 percent cut to his department could force him to cut nearly 60 employees and would return his department to the size it was nearly 30 years ago, despite fielding thousands more calls.
"It’s my duty and responsibility, your responsibility to every officer in this county. You’re in their debt. You’re in their debt. They are the ones who allow you to sleep and rest in your homes at night. They are the ones, when you leave and go about your separate ways during the day, they are the ones that ensure that your homes have not been violated," Brown said. "You’re in debt to every one of the officers who protect you and this is what the officers get in return?"
He said the Newton County Sheriff’s Office would cut nearly as much money as every other department combined, despite the fact the percentage cuts are equal.
"Some say equal is not fair, and in this position here I know you’re not being fair," Brown said. "Be the true leaders that the people of Newton County elected you to be. Be a servant, not a politician. Be a servant; that’s what you need to be. When it turns into the day you’re not doing your job, and have a fear of not being re-elected, then you’re not doing your job. You’re not doing your job. And I stand here today to say, go back and think of what you’re doing to the citizens of this county.
Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler also pleaded for her department and said the 15 employees in her office serve everybody in the county. They are responsible for collecting all of the taxes in the county, more than $92 million in local, state and federal taxes last year.
“(At a May 20 meeting) I was very disappointed to be told that the commissioners ordered across the board cuts and told that several commissioners made up their minds and were not interested in raising the millage rate,” Dingler said. “ I pray that you all go back and look at the budget for review. Every day is a strenuous day in my office and to cut three to four employees — that would be terrible.”
A few residents also spoke in opposition to cuts. Library board member Lois Upham said the Porter Memorial Library in District 2 was much needed. The BOC has considered leaving the library closed when it’s completed around the new year, but Upham said that would significantly cut into the one-year warranty period during which routine problems are corrected.
Resident Bill Hoosen said he expects a certain level of services from the county and he wants a timely court system, a quality library and adequate road repair and code enforcement. He said the rollback rate, which would be 10.9 mills this year, is simply a calculation that allows the county to collect the same amount of money from property owners every year and should be used every year.
He said that Newton County millage rate is 2.5 mills lower than the average of surrounding counties. He said maintaining services is critical to preserving quality of life and it’s unfair to not properly fund the government.
“It’s just as much a failure of an elected officials’ fiduciary responsibility to his and her constituents to set the tax rate too low as it would be to overtax through an improperly inflated rate,” Hoosen said.
Patrick Durusau said he has often heard that government should be like a business, but when a business doesn’t have enough income to cover its expenses, it has to raise prices to generate more money. He said county residents need to pay the price if they want quality services. Finally, he said economic development is helped by facts like having the No. 1 library in the state and to underfund those operations could be damaging to the community.
Following the public comments section, the commissioners resumed with the official work session, following up on information requested from the commissioners at the last meeting.
Chairman Kathy Morgan told the board that cutting about 100 county employees, approximately $4 million in salaries, could cost the local economy nearly $20 million. The figure was based on the multiplier effect, which says that each dollar earned locally circulates through the local economy 5.3 times.
In addition, Morgan said later that the county has invested significant money to train and educate employees, which would be lost, and have to be done again for future new hires.
The BOC discussed the $8.1 million fund balance, but Morgan and Administrative Assistant John Middleton suggested that the fund balance should not be lowered, or else the county’s AAA credit rating could be compromised.
At the last meeting, District 1 Commissioner had asked for the effects of the 10.9 mill rollback rate on local industries, business and agriculture operations. A $13 million-plus industry would pay an additional $6,277. A 93.4 acre agricultural property would pay an additional $18. A $644,000 restaurant would pay an additional $302, while an $830,000 retail store would pay an additional $389. Ewing said the owner of the largest business in his district asked him to not raise the tax rate because it might cause him to lay off some of the employees he was just able to re-hire.
District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson went on the record as saying he was not sold on a tax increase. He again criticized the board for not finding ways to cut expenses or increase revenues earlier.
The county will hold public budget hearings at the Historic Courthouse on June 9 at 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. and on June 15 at 6:30 p.m. The BOC will vote on a final budget at the June 15 regular meeting.