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Lessons from the budget process
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The budget process was an enlightening experience for me. It gave me an opportunity to sit down with each of the constitutional officers and department heads to understand better their departments. I learned about their revenue sources, maintenance and operation needs, as well as their plans for the future. I also learned which public services are required and which are implied necessities.

Take for instance, public safety. Most people feel that public safety is only law enforcement and fire protection. However, the law classifies public safety as law enforcement, corrections (jail), fire protection (including providing an adequate water supply), emergency 911 service, emergency management, animal control and ambulance services. We are also required by law to manage county roads to implement safe access for public safety vehicles.

Law enforcement, corrections, fire protection and EMS seem logical, but maintaining an adequate water supply? Think about it; if we offer fire protection but they do not have water in their trucks or access to water throughout the county, how will they put out the fire?

Another interesting tidbit about emergency 911 service — did you know that there is a difference between the call you make to 911 and the call they make to dispatch the service provider to the scene. These are two separate functions and are usually assigned with interagency agreements.

Animal control — is this public safety? It becomes a safety issue when you have a pack of dogs roaming in your street or wild animals that are rabid. Then consider that dead animal lying in front of your property, discount the odor and other animals that feed on decaying flesh, think of the airborne diseases that our community would be exposed to if the corpse were not removed by animal control and public works.

Did you know that our emergency management position is mandated by federal and state government? It is the manager’s job to coordinate all of our public safety departments following their guidelines and to coordinate all federal and state response in both natural and man-made disasters. That department also manages our insurance and risk for day-to-day operations of all departments providing county services.

Public works is a mandated department by law. We are required to maintain roads and bridges for safe passage. That includes spreading calcium chloride on bridges and icy roads during winter storms. It also includes clearing roadways of debris when tornadoes destroy homes and property within Newton County. This year we have had two tornadoes and had to call out the crew to spread for ice on multiple occasions. This department is responsible for road maintenance, resurfacing, grading and rocking, paving new roads, mowing right of ways, maintaining cross drains and drainage easements and ditches. They are also responsible for maintenance of all county vehicles including fire trucks and sheriff’s vehicles. Public works is the backbone of the infrastructure of the county.

There are other departments that are implied necessities. One of these is Solid Waste, or the landfill. If we do not provide a place to send our solid waste (trash), does this become a safety issue? It affects health safety. When people do not have a convenient and specified place to place their trash, then they create dumping sites. Left unchecked, those breed health hazards such as bacteria, disease, rodents, etc. I am proud to say that we have an excellent landfill, operated professionally following the rules and regulations of the EPD. We take that a step further and contract with a consultant to monitor the landfill to be sure we comply and provide a safe environment for those living and working nearby.

Were you aware Keep Newton/Covington Beautiful serves a mandated requirement? This department provides education services mandated by the law. They educate our community and children about water resources and other environmental issues to teach them to be good stewards of the land and to protect our natural resources.

Planning and Development is to provide the services required to implement the zoning regulations and ordinances adopted by the Board of Commissioners as well as state and federal law. This requires inspections, review and compliance, as well as code enforcement. Although new growth has slowed due to the economic crisis, there are still plenty of projects on our books requiring these services. This department currently has 13 commercial projects ongoing in Newton County including the new schools under development as well as several small residential permits. They have taken the lead on the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which aims to provide affordable housing in the county. They also assist the BOC with planning issues and the comprehensive land use plan, including but not limited to zoning requests and variances. If they don’t do their job, you could have a night club open next to a church, or even worse, your home. This is a busy department.

The Recreation Department and Senior Services are appropriations that generate their own revenues as well. I believe it is a good use of dollars to promote a healthy and productive lifestyle. Our recreation department does an excellent job providing sports activities for our citizens while keeping the cost down to maintain the county facilities. It offers positive opportunities as an outlet for our children to expend their energy while teaching them to reach for their dreams and the steps necessary to obtain their goals. Our senior services provide meals and services to enable our senior citizens to maintain an independent lifestyle as long as possible.

I learned during the budget process that county government is not a simple organizational chart. Positions and departments are mandated and implied. The Board of Commissioners is mandated to budget enough staff to provide the services required by federal and state laws, as well as local policies and ordinances. We are mandated to provide roads and maintain county property. We want to provide adequate services to enhance the quality of life in Newton County without creating a tax burden on the property owners. It is all about providing services within our budget.

However, it is important to remember it is just not a bunch of numbers that balance to zero. The services we provide are a result of the people we employ. The county employees are people just like you and me. They take pride in their jobs and Newton County. Their devotion to this community is un-measurable. Last Wednesday was a sad day for Newton County. We notified 14 good people who had performed their jobs that their positions would no longer be required due to a reduction in workforce to meet budget constraints. These were people we had invested your hard earned tax dollars to train and become certified to provide a service to the citizens of Newton County. These were difficult decisions, but that same law that requires us to provide services requires that we have a balanced budget. If you know any of these people, please say "thank you" for their service to Newton County.

It appeared that there was a lot of controversy during the budget process. That was not how I interpreted the process. We are very lucky to have both staff and elected officials who take this process seriously. They are mindful of the need to provide services as well as the cost to the taxpayer. Questions were asked and answered to provide enough information for the basis of the decisions made. Suggestions were offered to streamline processes to become more efficient. Citizens asked questions and let us know their feelings. This is good government.

As chairman of the Board of Commissioners, I will always welcome your input and open dialogue between the commission and citizens of Newton County.

Kathy Morgan is the chairman of the Newton County Board of Commissioners