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Letter: The county budget, public safety and P-cards

The Newton County Board of Commissioners has not yet approved a budget for fiscal year 2019 which began July 1, 2018. That is a good thing because the BOC is taking more time to study the $65.3 million spending plan and to consider ways to reduce it. Hopefully, that will result in less of a property tax increase than originally proposed by the county manager and our chairman.

A number of good ideas have been suggested for reducing the FY2019 budget. The most obvious one is not to fund 31 more new positions for the sheriff, jail and fire departments until they fill the 50-plus vacant slots already allocated to them. The BOC has previously provided money for more deputies and firemen, but the problem is that not enough people are being recruited to work for those departments. Recent pay raises should help so the priority for FY2019 needs to be on filling the 50 existing vacancies, then determining if more are needed.

Public safety is a critical function of local government so virtually everyone supports sufficient funding for fire and police projection. Despite the sheriff’s frequent complaints and the perception of some folks, BOC funding for public safety has been adequate in the past and will be so again in FY2019. The proposed budget for the Newton County Sheriff’s Office is up $1.2 million to $13.2 million for FY2019 and the Newton County Fire Department budget will increase by $1.4 million to $7.4 million. With good management, that level of funding ought to provide our county with good fire and police services provided all current vacancies are filled and functioning.

The other way to reduce the budget and avoid a tax increase is to eliminate unnecessary government spending. The ongoing P-Card revelations indicate wasteful spending by some county officials and employees. That sort of thing must be eliminated before it is reasonable to ask taxpayers for more money. Department Christmas parties that cost $2,500, $75 LongHorn lunches, and $450 dinners at the Atlanta Commerce Club are certainly unacceptable uses of public funds, as is expensive staff travel to conferences in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada.

P-card charges are a fraction of the total county spending but reckless use may indicate a lack of control of and concern about overall county operating cost. Newton County government has a history of wasting taxpayer’s money, so citizens want to see a real change before a property tax increase is even considered. For starters, let’s have an audit of all P-card charges by the 53 county employees and elected officials who have them and recover any improperly spent money.

Citizens must get involved if we are to have a responsible county government that spends our money wisely. The revised FY2019 budget will be voted on Aug, 21. That gives everyone plenty of time to express their opinion to the BOC about county spending and tax rates. 

Submitted by:

Larry McSwain