You've got to give it to Bill Hoosen. He's a bold, well-spoken retiree and Newton County resident who's unafraid to stand up to the Board of Commissioners when he thinks they're about to vote into law a budget that he believes will harm the county.
He did just that Tuesday, challenging the board on their thinking that cutting services and employees by not changing the tax rate is the best way to manage our way out of the recession. He's got an alternative.
Bill, married to Teri Hoosen, director of Newton County Animal Control, moved to Newton County in 1988 to start the local YMCA. He retired two years ago from a successful career as a fundraiser for Metropolitan Atlanta YMCA.
The Hoosens fell in love with the Newton County they discovered back in 1988, a "caring community," Bill recalls.
While working to get our local Y underway, Bill got to know County Chair Roy Varner and considered him a friend and "a real servant leader."
"He thought it was the responsibility of government to help people," Bill observed. "I was amazed at the way he pulled people together to get things done."
He's quick to cite Newton County's positive and progressive history with the emphasis on "history": things like the FFA camp, Varner Reservoir, improved recreation, the first county school transportation program and an animal control department, among others.
"Not much has been accomplished lately, but we've got a lot to be proud of in our past," he said.
He wonders now if the current board of commissioners has a plan for moving the county forward when the mantra seems to be "cut, cut and cut."
"One or two of the commissioners seem to understand the need for planning and progress and equitable taxation, while one or two are motivated by a personal agenda or looking toward future political ambitions," said Hoosen. "Politics in this county is obscuring policy-making, as it is nationally. The commissioners seem to have lost the willingness to listen to other sides. Why would they even want to serve on the board if their view seems to be that government is bad and needs to be cut back until it barely survives? It's like pruning a tree. Cut it back too much and the tree is at risk."
Hoosen notes that until this past year, the county has not adjusted its millage rate for a decade, and "it should float every year based on the county budget and the total tax digest."
"If the tax digest is growing, the millage rate should probably be going down, and if the tax digest is shrinking, the millage rate should probably be going up."
"The reality of this," he continued, "is that my property taxes were 21 percent less in 2010 than in 2009." The mill rate increase proposed by the Chair and rejected by the majority of the board, he noted, would raise his current taxes but only to the level of taxes paid in 2009. The millage rate, he contends, was designed to float based on the size of the county digest and the cost of providing services that residents need and want. "It should be pure mathematics and outside the political arena."
Hoosen decried the board's rejection of "user" fees that were proposed by several departments during the budget process. "Isn't it the goal of every tax reform movement, to have those that use the services pay for the services? How much time have you (commissioners) spent with the county department heads to gain an understanding of the service they provide, how they struggle to provide the service expected of them on a downward spiral of cuts, how they maintain morale when their staff continue to wonder when the next shoe will drop.
"If you (commissioners) blindly refuse to float the millage rate as it is designed, if you ask department heads to spend days and weeks creating revenue solutions and then turn them down because some people might not like it, if you continue to cut every year, you are going to undo the accomplishments of your predecessors. Where do you stop ... or do you take Newton County down the slippery slope of mediocrity or worse?"
It is true that the local Chamber of Commerce and business community opposed a millage adjustment, as did many local residents, but others, like Bill Hoosen, happen to think differently. "It's our patriotic duty to pay taxes," he maintains. In all fairness, his views deserve to be heard. It was easy to see Tuesday evening that not all the commissioners were paying attention.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.