County talks strate­gic plan­ning; res­i­dents talk taxes

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­

The com­ments at Tues­day’s New­ton County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers were as long as the meet­ing it­self, as res­i­dents once again gave the board their opin­ions about a pro­posed mil­lage rate in­crease and other is­sues, while Chair­man Keith El­lis pro­vided sev­eral up­dates on county busi­ness.

Plan­ning to avoid a bud­get re­peat

Dur­ing this year’s bud­get cy­cle, com­mis­sion­ers lamented an­other year of tough de­ci­sions and agreed they didn’t want to end up in the same sit­u­a­tion — fac­ing cuts or rais­ing the mil­lage rate — again next year.

As a re­sult, the board is plan­ning its first mini strate­gic plan­ning re­treat for Fri­day, Aug. 16 at the FFA-FFC- LA Cen­ter off Ga. High­way 36.

The board has its an­nual, nor­mally two-day long, re­treat in late win­ter or spring, but by that time the county is al­ready back in bud­get mode pre­par­ing for the new fis­cal year, which be­gins July 1.

While com­mis­sion­ers Le­vie Maddox, Lanier Sims and Nancy Schulz have given their in­for­mal sup­port for a mil­lage rate in­crease, they’ve also called on the county to im­me­di­ately be­gin look­ing for ways to save money and in­crease rev­enues.

The re­treat will tackle some of the big­gest short and long-term is­sues; the ini­tial list in­cludes a dis­cus­sion of:

• the land­fill and over­all solid waste op­er­a­tion • the ju­di­cial cen­ter ex­pan­sion • trans­porta­tion plan­ning (in­clud­ing bridges)

• com­mu­nity cen­ters

• fi­nan­cial re­port­ing to com­mis­sion­ers.

The list is sub­ject to change, as com­mis­sion­ers may want to ad­dress other top­ics.

El­lis said em­ploy­ees with the North­east Ge­or­gia Re­gional Com­mis­sion will fa­cil­i­tate the re­treat for free; the cost to use the FFA Cen­ter’s fa­cil­i­ties will also be free.

“Strate­gic plan­ning is go­ing to be a part of what we do ev­ery year,” El­lis said Tues­day.

He said Wed­nes­day that some of th­ese is­sues may be multi-year is­sues as of­fi­cials tries to pave the way for fu­ture boards.

Main Street and Gaither’s Plan­ta­tion

El­lis also told the board he was plan­ning to of­fi­cially sign off on

can­cel­ing the county’s con­tract with the city of Cov­ing­ton and Main Street Cov­ing­ton Board of Di­rec­tors.

The city re­quested the can­cel­la­tion as part of the process of mov­ing the Main Street pro­gram, which is re­spon­si­ble for down­town de­vel­op­ment and mar­ket­ing, un­der the cham­ber.

In ad­di­tion, can­cel­ing the con­tract al­lows the city and county to swap con­trol of Main Street and Keep Cov­ing­ton-New­ton Beau­ti­ful. Those two pro­grams were jointly funded by the city and county, but now the city will pay for all of Main Street and the county will cover all of KCNB’s cost.

• El­lis said mem­bers from New­ton, Wal­ton, Mor­gan and Jasper coun­ties met with state Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Gary Black to dis­cuss in­creas­ing agri­tourism op­por­tu­ni­ties in the area.

El­lis said Wed­nes­day he’d like to see some the agri­tourism mind­set ap­plied to mak­ing Gaither’s Plan­ta­tion a des­ti­na­tion.

The county lost $27,000 tak­ing care of the prop­erty, be­cause of a lack of use; the prop­erty has pre­vi­ously been a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for wed­dings and other events. El­lis said a com­mit­tee of county em­ploy­ees and res­i­dents will meet to dis­cuss ideas for the prop­erty.

El­lis had hoped to rent the prop­erty out as a graz­ing pas­ture for a lo­cal cat­tle farmer; how­ever, de­spite five peo­ple ex­press­ing in­ter­est, no one of­fi­cially bid on rent­ing the land.

Cit­i­zens speak out against tax in­crease

Res­i­dent Dennis Tay­lor again urged the board not to vote for a mil­lage rate in­crease, say­ing it would hin­der eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment ef­forts.

Tay­lor said ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion on the Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Rev­enue’s web­site, New­ton County had one of the high­est com­bined mil­lage rates in the state, when you take into ac­count the mil­lage rates of the county, school sys­tem, emer­gency med­i­cal ser­vices and fire ser­vices.

Other coun­ties with sim­i­larly high rates, like DeKalb and Rock­dale coun­ties, had much higher home­stead tax ex­emp­tions, Tay­lor said, which al­lows home­own­ers in those coun­ties to pay less in taxes on their pri­mary res­i­dence.

Tay­lor said the lat­est SPLOST should have been used more wisely, in­clud­ing spend­ing more money to pay off debt ser­vice, which would have negated $750,000 of spend­ing in next year’s bud­get to pay off a loan taken to ex­pand the county’s land­fill.

Fel­low res­i­dent J.J. Hay­den agreed with that last point, say­ing com­mis­sion­ers were too con­cerned with pet projects; how­ever, he be­lieved a mil­lage rate in­creased was needed at this time.

He said many peo­ple will not have their taxes in­crease be­cause prop­erty val­ues are still de­clin­ing over­all.

He also said he wants ad­e­quate ser­vices and in­vited those who don’t to move to a more ru­ral county.

On a dif­fer­ent but re­lated note, Recre­ation board mem­ber Flem­mie Pitts told the board he was se­ri­ously con­cerned about the recre­ation com­mis­sion’s bud­get, which was cut by $90,555 to $1.62 mil­lion.

Pitts said the com­mis­sion may not have money to hire a di­rec­tor or ath­letic co­or­di­na­tor, which are needed po­si­tions.

The com­mis­sion is try­ing to bal­ance the bud­get, but he said he didn’t know how that would hap­pen.

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