It’s time for long-term plan­ning

The Covington News - - OPINION - Bar­bara Mor­gan is a Cov­ing­ton res­i­dent with a back­ground in news­pa­per jour­nal­ism, state govern­ment and pol­i­tics. She can be reached at barbm2158@gmail.com.

The July 16 meet­ing of the Board of Com­mis­sion­ers may be packed with vo­cif­er­ous anti-tax cru­saders ob­ject­ing to the ex­pected ma­jor­ity vote to adopt a roll­back mil­lage rate.

A new coali­tion of com­mis­sion­ers Nancy Schulz, Lanier Sims and Le­vie Maddox, backed by Chair Keith El­lis, will hold their noses and vote to raise the mil­lage rate from 10.91 to 11.59, an in­crease of .68 that will raise taxes on a $100,000 house by $27 next year.

This raises the hack­les of any­one who thinks taxes are money down a rat hole in­stead of the price for paved roads, emer­gency man­age­ment, law en­force­ment, elec­tions, li­braries and recre­ation ser­vices, among other things.

State law says the roll­back rate isn’t a tax in­crease be­cause ap­ply­ing it to a di­min­ished tax base doesn’t bring in more monies, but just enough to pro­vide the same bud­get next year.

Adopt­ing the roll­back rate is more rea­son­able, say th­ese three, than an­other 5 per­cent across-the­board cut to ser­vices and per­son­nel or dip­ping into county re­serves, low­er­ing the county’s credit rat­ing and rais­ing bor­row­ing costs.

Were I to write the head­line that night, it’s not the roll­back rate that would get top billing, but rather this board’s ma­jor­ity com­mit­ment to se­ri­ous longterm strate­gic plan­ning.

The goal is to pre­vent the con­tin­u­a­tion of more short-term Band-Aids to the bud­get. Strate­gic plan­ning will break down county ex­penses and any du­pli­ca­tion of ser­vices, iden­tify ef­fi­cien­cies in ser­vice de­liv­ery and de­velop new rev­enues to re­lieve home­own­ers of the bur­den to fund county op­er­a­tions dis­pro­por­tion­ally.

It’s not as if strate­gic plan­ning never came up at the BOC be­fore, but the pre­vi­ous board’s three-per­son ma­jor­ity pre­ferred to leave long-term plan­ning to the Lead­er­ship Col­lab­o­ra­tive and to mend the bud­get an­nu­ally with bal­ing twine and gum.

They said the county couldn’t af­ford the cost of strate­gic plan­ning, re­called for­mer Chair Kathy Mor­gan, who with Schulz pushed for long-term plan­ning.

Chair­man El­lis had lis­tened in­tently to dis­cus­sions among com­mis­sion mem­bers about the need to de­crease the county’s re­liance on per­sonal prop­erty taxes and seek new rev­enue sources and ef­fi­cien­cies.

He pro­posed $9,500 specif­i­cally for strate­gic plan­ning to be fa­cil­i­tated by staff of the North­east Ge­or­gia Re­gional Com­mis­sion.

Jim Dove is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the NEGRC. In a let­ter to El­lis, he said items the Board should look at in­clude trans­porta­tion plan­ning, solid waste man­age­ment/land­fill op­er­a­tions, Ju­di­cial Cen­ter ex­pan­sion, reser­voir con­struc­tion, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, the li­brary, in­ter­nal fi­nan­cial re­port­ing, en­ergy au­dits, county or­di­nances and com­mu­nity cen­ters.

Dove said solid waste/ man­age­ment and land­fill is­sues are among a few items that should take prece­dence.

That’s def­i­nitely up­per­most to Schulz, Sims and Maddox. It ought to be a rev­enue pro­ducer, they say, in­stead of a money loser — some $750,000 this year, ac­cord­ing to County Man­ager John Mid­dle­ton. Com­mis­sioner Sims wants to know why that con­tract hasn’t been re-bid in some 16 years when it should be ev­ery year.

Two and one-half years ago when he joined the board, he was stunned to find the county didn’t have a grant writer to bring in new rev­enues.

“Look at what the Sher­iff’s depart­ment and the city of Cov­ing­ton have brought in with grants,” he said. The new bud­get to be ap­proved in­cludes $50,000 for that grant writer.

Com­mis­sioner Schulz has touted strate­gic plan­ning for the five years she’s served.

She op­posed pet projects like the Ag Cen­ter for Dis­trict 1 and cap­i­tal out­lays for Dis­trict 4 in the 2011 SPLOST be­cause of no long-term plan­ning of their ben­e­fit and sus­tained main­te­nance. She wanted more debt ser­vice in­cluded in­stead.

“I said at the time we needed a strate­gic plan,” she said. “We don’t need to just throw darts at the bud­get. We need to have spe­cific tar­gets, sta­bi­lize our fi­nan­cial sol­vency, at­tract more busi­nesses and gen­er­ate more county rev­enues. We can’t do that with­out a plan.”

Maddox, the new­est BOC mem­ber, said Mor­gan touted strate­gic plan­ning to him while he was cam­paign­ing.

“And I thought about it. I come from a cor­po­rate back­ground, and we al­ways had a five-year-out plan for equip­ment up­grades and per­son­nel, for ex­am­ple.

“I be­lieve in my heart that New­ton County is go­ing to see eco­nomic liftoff in 18-24 months, and if we don’t do things dif­fer­ently, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment will jump right over us and land some­where else,” he said. “We’ve got to get our house in or­der and find more ef­fi­cien­cies with­out more money.”

The fis­cal year 2014 bud­get also in­cludes an­other $30,000 for the Cham­ber’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment ef­forts.

I say thanks to this board’s new lead­er­ship team for rec­og­niz­ing the need for plan­ning in­stead of buy­ing more BandAids.

BAR­BARA MOR­GAN COLUM­NIST

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