Many taxpayers in Newton County recognize that our county remains in a depressed economic situation that is reflected by a reduced tax digest and less county tax revenue compared to a few years ago. The result is that our county government must be managed with much greater efficiency and with very careful, accountable and transparent spending decisions. Over the last several years that has not been the case with our Board of Commissioners (BOC). Questionable spending decisions have been made despite taxpayer concerns about inadequate fiduciary oversight and lack of transparency.
Taxpayers simply do not trust the BOC to wisely use additional tax money.
Because of the widespread distrust of the BOC, their plan to raise property taxes, solid waste fees and water rates must come with their pledge to citizens that the Board will take immediate, specific and measurable steps to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of county government. More taxes must not equal more wasteful spending. Such steps should include:
1. Develop a multi-year financial and operational plan that will anticipate service demands, set strategic goals and provide for future expenses; and that will restore the county fund balance to a responsible level.
2. Restructure county government, based on the recommendations of the citizens committee, to clarify the supervisory and management roles of the chairman, county manager and district commissioners.
3. Provide sufficient technical expertise to enable the citizen’s landfill committee to develop a future solid waste plan that includes consideration of alternate waste disposal methods and potential partnerships. Charge the landfill committee to evaluate formation of a Solid Waste Authority to manage future solid waste collection and disposal.
4. Bring all routine legal services in house and establish firm control over future legal costs to bring expenses in line with those of comparable counties.
5. Immediately adopt the recommendations of the purchasing committee, and cancel or re-bid all contracts related to operations of the convenience centers (county dumpster sites) and any other county contracts that were let or extended without bidding. Taxpayers need to be reassured that we are getting the best value for all county services.
6. Stop all spending on the Bear Creek Project until a complete, objective third party review determines it is needed. Cancel the $2 million dollar no-bid contract with Schnabel Engineering for dam design, thereby saving enterprise water funds. Audit all Bear Creek expenses to date and provide a transparent accounting of land bought and services purchased.
7. Determine the infrastructure improvements needed for the county water system with the help of the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority and the city water departments. Budget for the improvements and get them underway.
8. After taking the above actions, reevaluate the financial need for the increase in the solid waste tipping fee, the convenience center charge and the water rate increase. Conduct market analysis before any fee increases.
If the Board of Commissioners and Chairman make a formal pledge to taxpayers to make these improvements, the proposed millage rate and fee increases will be a little less painful for those of us who will have to pay them.