Ac­tiv­ity ramps up be­fore county tax rate vote

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­news.com

Robo­calls and ral­lies are back in New­ton County, pre­cur­sors to the po­ten­tially con­tentious county bud­get vote loom­ing Tues­day.

The New­ton County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers is set to vote on the 2013-2014 bud­get and mil­lage rate Tues­day night, and with a ma­jor­ity of com­mis­sion­ers pre­vi­ously reach­ing an in­for­mal con­sen­sus to raise the mil­lage rate, tax hike pro­test­ers are mak­ing a last push to make their voices heard.

The county is hold­ing a pub­lic hear­ing on a pro­posed $45.95 mil­lion bud­get— which would re­quire the mil­lage rate to be upped from 10.91 to 11.59 —at 6:30 p.m. Tues­day at the His­toric Court­house. Chair­man Keith El­lis said he will set the time limit for speak­ers dur­ing the pub­lic hear­ing based on how many peo­ple ex­press an in­ter­est in speak­ing.

There also will be a pub­lic comment por­tion as nor­mal dur­ing the reg­u­larly sched­uled board meet­ing, which be­gins at 7 p.m. Tues­day.

Al­though cit­i­zens are nor­mally given 3 min­utes to speak, El­lis will again base speak­ers’ time lim­its on the num­ber of peo­ple who want to speak. Be­cause the zon­ing por­tion of the meet­ing must start at 7:30

p.m. by law, El­lis ex­pects to limit com­ments to 30 min­utes as well.

A newly formed group, New­ton Con­ser­va­tive Lib­erty Al­liance, is plan­ning a rally on the His­toric Court­house steps at 5:45 p.m. Tues­day.

Lo­cal res­i­dent Aaron Brooks is plan­ning to pro­pose ideas about how the county could cut costs in­stead of rais­ing taxes.

“We didn’t find any huge chunks but found lit­tle ar­eas through­out,” said the group’s founder, El­iz­a­beth Chris­tian Allen, who noted she would also be go­ing through a copy of the bud­get this week­end.

“We’re mainly bring­ing ev­ery­one to­gether to show sup­port against rais­ing taxes,” Allen said.

The New­ton County Repub­li­can Party was also mak­ing its feel­ings known, send­ing out a robo­call to county res­i­dents be­gin­ning Thurs­day night, urg­ing them to con­tact their com­mis­sion­ers and ex­press op­po­si­tion to a tax in­crease. Lo­cal GOP Chair­woman Delia Flem­ing said the calls went out to thou­sands of res­i­dents at a cost of about $400.

“We’ve called and emailed non-stop,” Flem­ing said.

The party has fo­cused its ef­forts on Com­mis­sioner Le­vie Maddox, the lone Repub­li­can to ten­ta­tively sup­port a mil­lage rate in­crease.

“We wouldn’t fig­ure out why he would sup­port (the tax in­crease). We’re try­ing to give him ideas of where the cuts could be, other ways to go about it,” Flem­ing said, not­ing that rais­ing taxes was the eas­i­est thing to do.

Flem­ing coun­tered claims that the in­crease wouldn’t have a large ef­fect on home­own­ers’ pay­ments, say­ing it re­ally hurts peo­ple with mul­ti­ple properties and ex­press­ing skep­ti­cism the rate would be re­duced.

As groups gear up their mes­sages, El­lis said he’s ready to lis­ten, and is pre­par­ing a longer-than-nor­mal “Chat with the Chair­man” ses­sion from 3 - 5 p.m. Mon­day. Res­i­dents are in­vited to come to the His­toric Court­house and speak to the chair­man about any is­sue.

Com­mis­sion­ers’ thoughts

Com­mis­sion­ers Maddox and Nancy Schulz, who also pre­vi­ously ex­pressed sup­port for rais­ing the mil­lage rate, both said they’re open to al­ter­na­tives but have yet to hear a bet­ter so­lu­tion that will set the county on solid foot­ing in the short or medium-term.

“I’m wait­ing up to this minute on a bet­ter so­lu­tion,” Maddox said. “No­body goes into of­fice look­ing to raise taxes, but at the same time, I want a bet­ter so­lu­tion. I’m not sure that ex­ists right now. A lot of ideas have been tossed out there, a lot of good and great ones from re­spon­si­ble cit­i­zens, but again, I’m not sure an un­known so­lu­tion will hit be­tween now and Tues­day.”

Both Maddox and Schulz ex­pressed sup­port for plan­ning to lower the mil­lage rate af­ter the county had time to look for ways to cut costs and in­crease non-prop­erty tax rev­enues. How­ever, while Maddox sup­ported a de­fined “sun­set pro­vi­sion” on an in­crease, Schulz said she was more com­fort­able with a goal of re­duc­ing the mil­lage rate within two years.

Schulz said she felt two years was needed to al­low the county’s pro­posed strate­gic plan­ning process to give of­fi­cials an idea of where to make sig­nif­i­cant changes.

“It’s very sim­plis­tic to just say, ‘Let’s go across and have a 5 per­cent cut. It’s too sim­plis­tic. We can’t do that,” said Schulz, not­ing such a bare-bones bud­get would leave the county in dire straits should an un­ex­pected disas­ter, like a flood, hit.

If the county had to pull into its re­serve fund bal­ance, its credit rat­ing could be jeop­ar­dized, which would af­fect nu­mer­ous groups and cost the county and oth­ers more in un­fa­vor­able loan and bond terms.

As far as work­ing on find­ing ways to save and make money, El­lis said the county is al­ready work­ing on mul­ti­ple ef­forts.

He said he’s be­gun do­ing en­ergy au­dits on some of the smaller county-owned build­ings look­ing for pos­si­ble sav­ings on util­ity costs; El­lis used to work in the en­ergy au­dit field.

The county will likely hire a larger com­pany to do au­dits for the larger, more com­plex build­ings; At­lanta-based South­face is meet­ing with El­lis next week.

El­lis said he’s also meet­ing the county’s au­di­tors in an ef­fort to re­fi­nance some ex­ist­ing debt, es­pe­cially the ex­pen­sive land­fill note, which has a $750,000 pay­ment this year that is part of the cur­rent bud­get crunch.

The county also is work­ing with the Ge­or­gia Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner’s of­fice to find ways to boost agri­tourism in New­ton County, which could po­ten­tially lead to in­creased sales tax rev­enue.

“I don’t know how long vam­pires will be fly­ing around Cov­ing­ton, but we can have peo­ple come to New­ton County to pull fruits and veg­eta­bles and ride horses,” El­lis said.

El­lis talked about start­ing on a zero-based bud­get soon, where each depart­ment would build its bud­get from the ground up. He also men­tioned the pos­si­bil­ity of form­ing a cit­i­zen’s bud­get com­mit­tee to bring res­i­dents into the mix.

“The work starts on next year’s bud­get right away,” El­lis said.

He also said the county has to make some tough de­ci­sions about what to do with the land­fill and re­cy­cling cen­ters and said he was “will­ing to put that on my shoul­ders to make sure we carry through will all th­ese things.”

How­ever the vote goes — whether the board raises the mil­lage rate or chooses to cut de­part­ments — El­lis said re­la­tion­ships must con­tinue to strengthen,

“Ob­vi­ously there is some ten­sion about this vote; an un­easi­ness. But I also think those com­mis­sion­ers will vote their con­science. How can you blame some­body if you do that?” said El­lis, not­ing he came up with pro­pos­als that cut the bud­get and kept the mil­lage rate the same. “We want to con­tinue the re­la­tion­ships we’ve been build­ing.”

A copy of the pro­posed bud­get is avail­able at the His­toric Court­house.

The News will re­quest a copy Mon­day and post it on­line as soon as pos­si­ble.

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