Once again, our Newton County Commissioners are letting the cart come before the horse in its budget process. All in the attempt to keep the “sacred” millage rate low. The millage rate is meant to be a purely mathematical formula instead of a political football.
Our commissioners have a fiscal responsibility to this county. Part of that is to make sure that the monies they take in to operate our county are used ethically and efficiently. All of us want to know that our tax dollars are not being wasted. However, we also want to be sure that the dollars we might save today do not leave our children and grandchildren with unnecessary expenditures ten and one hundred fold greater due to delayed maintenance. That means that our commissioners will sometimes need to explain to us why expenditures must be made. A case in point is our County Landfill. By cutting the landfill’s budget, instead of adjusting fees and providing the necessary income to operate the landfill safely and cleanly, they are trying to make a case that an outside entity can operate the landfill with a “cost” savings to Newton County citizens.
Our commissioners are shirking their duty when they try to rein in the budget to meet the millage rate. They should be examining the budget and make the hard decisions surgically by department instead of applying a broad brush and telling every department to cut by a certain percentage to fit the millage rate. There are some county departments that submitted budgets with greater than 15% increases. Others have toed the line with increases of about 2%. If the broad brush is applied as it has been in the past, the departments who have budgeted frugally will suffer the most.
Once the budget has been vetted and determined to provide necessary services in the most cost-effective manner and the county net tax digest has been established and approved by the state, the millage rate is a simple mathematical formula: Divide the Budget [A] by the Net Tax Digest (multiplied by the state mandated 40%) [B] and you get the millage rate [C]. So in a growth economy we should be diligent that our millage rate is dropping. And when property values are declining, if we want the same services, the millage rate has to go up.
The way this affects you individually is that if your property is valued at $200,000 and the millage rate is 11.225, your tax is $8980. However, if your property value declines to $100,000 and the millage rate remains the same your tax drops to $4,490. Do we then want the County to increase our public safety response time from 7 minutes to 14 minutes, or stop repairing roads, or cut the library’s hours by half, or shut the lights off at our ball fields 3 nights a week? To maintain our level of service, the budget needs to remain the same. To then fund the budget the millage rate must go up. But your annual taxes don’t go up, because the value of your property is now lower. So if your property value drops by 50%, even if the millage rate doubled you would pay the same taxes.
The reality is that when the county was growing the millage rate should have been falling and it didn’t. Now the millage rate should be rising, and not by some arbitrary number to reverse engineer a budget. We need to hold our commissioners accountable. They need to be able to explain budget costs and cuts to us in real terms. We have county employees that are relying on food stamps and public assistance to make ends meet because of the austerity budgets passed over the past several years. Several years ago County Department Heads were asked to determine if they could raise revenues through direct fees for use. Literally hundreds of hours were spent on this task and several departments demonstrated that they could be basically self-supporting through fees within 3-5 years. This would free general tax dollars to either be used on roads or public safety or offset the budget amount, which could ultimately reduce taxes.
Tell your commissioner that enough cuts are enough. Tell them you don’t want your services reduced any more. Tell them that you want them to explain to you specifically what is or isn’t being cut, and why. Ask them if they understand the millage rate. Tell them that you want the millage rate to float the way it is supposed to and that you don’t want a budget built on the millage rate. Tell them that you want a realistic and efficient budget. And you want it this year.