BOC votes to raise mil­lage rate

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

The New­ton County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers voted 4-1 Tues­day to raise the mil­lage rate from 10.91 to 11.54 and ap­prove a pro­posed $45.95 mil­lion bud­get for fis­cal year 2014, which al­ready be­gan July 1.

The of­fi­cial mo­tion, made by Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schulz, called for the board to be­gin a strate­gic plan­ning process and have a “goal of low­er­ing the mil­lage rate in two years.”

Com­mis­sioner John Dou­glas was the lone vote in op­po­si­tion, say­ing New­ton County al­ready had one of the high­est com­bined mil­lage rates – when tak­ing into the ac­count the school board and fire and emer­gency man­age­ment ser­vices rates – in the state.

Dou­glas ques­tioned whether the board would truly lower the rate in the fu­ture, but Com­mis­sion­ers Schulz, Lanier Sims and Le­vie Maddox all said they thought it was doable.

The lone com­mis­sioner to change his mind from the board’s pre­vi­ous con­sen­sus, which was reached at a work ses­sion, was J.C. Hen­der­son, who had pre­vi­ously op­posed any bud­get that called for a po­ten­tial ad­di­tional fee to use the county’s re­cy­cling cen­ters. The pre­vi­ously pro­posed fee was not dis­cussed Tues­day, but Hen­der­son said he sup­ported the in­creased mil­lage to main­tain vi­tal ser­vices, in­clud­ing pub­lic safety and the court sys­tem.

Sim­i­lar to the last time the board voted to raise the mil­lage rate, in 2010, the night was marked with plenty of dia­logue and dis­agree­ment.

The night be­gan with a 5:45 p.m. rally out­side the His­toric Court­house, where res­i­dent Aaron Brooks spoke against the tax, say­ing it would stymie eco­nomic growth by driv­ing busi­ness in­vest­ment else­where.

He also said it would hurt ev­ery­one by in­creas­ing the an­nual taxes paid on most cars.

The anti-tax in­crease sen­ti­ment con­tin­ued in the pub­lic hear­ing on the bud­get at 6:30 p.m., where all nine res­i­dents who spoke op­posed an in­crease. The com­mon themes were res­i­dents say­ing they didn’t have any more money to give, wor­ry­ing about a neg­a­tive ef­fect on busi­ness growth and promis­ing to re­mem­ber Tues­day’s vote dur­ing the next elec­tion.

No spe­cific bud­get cuts were sug­gested, but res­i­dents called on the board to make the tough de­ci­sions this year.

How­ever, com­mis­sion­ers be­lieved choos­ing to raise the mil­lage rate – even with pub­lic op­po­si­tion – was the tough de­ci­sion.

Schulz said the bud­get had al­ready been cut by $10 mil­lion from the time she took of­fice and said fur­ther cuts would only jeop­ar­dize the health of the county, fur­ther cut ser­vices and put a larger bur­den on county em­ploy­ees.

She said she un­der­stood res­i­dents would have a hard time trust­ing elected of­fi­cials will lower the mil­lage rate when prop­erty val­ues rise, but she pledged to fol­low through.

It’s un­clear if com­mis­sion­ers will cut the mil­lage rate if prop­erty val­ues don’t rise, but com­mis­sion­ers did say they were will­ing to make tough de­ci­sions af­ter sys­tem­at­i­cally look­ing for more cuts and find­ing ways to raise rev­enues, which is where the strate­gic plan­ning process will come into play. The first strate­gic plan­ning will be the county’s mini-re­treat on Aug. 16.

Dou­glas said the mil­lage rate wasn’t low­ered when prop­erty val­ues im­proved from 1998 to 2005, but Schulz said boards in the 1980s and early 1990s did vote to lower the mil­lage rate when val­ues in­creased.

The board of­fi­cially ap­proved the roll­back mil­lage rate, a govern­ment term used to de­scribe the process of ad­just­ing the mil­lage rate ei­ther up or down to bring in the same amount of prop­erty tax rev­enue from year to year to ac­count for changes in over­all prop­erty val­ues.

The gross tax di­gest de­clined for the fifth con­sec­u­tive year in 2013, drop­ping from $2.3 bil­lion to $2.17 bil­lion.

Some of the new items in the bud­get are $50,000 for ei­ther an in-house or con­tracted grant writer, an ad­di­tional $30,000 for the Cov­ing­ton-New­ton County Cham­ber of Com­merce for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and $9,500 for strate­gic plan­ning.

Com­mis­sion­ers said pre­vi­ously they hope grants and prop­erty tax and sales rev­enue from new busi­nesses will in­crease.

Among the big­gest cuts was a $90,555 cut from the New­ton County Recre­ation Com­mis­sion, as well as $129,000 in con­sol­i­da­tions to the en­gi­neer­ing and fleet main­te­nance de­part­ments.

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