BOC: progress still needed on tax cut

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

When com­mis­sion­ers raised the prop­erty tax rate in July, they pledged to lower the rate within two years, but six months later com­mis­sion­ers have made lit­tle progress on find­ing ways to in­crease rev­enue and cut costs.

The New­ton County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers held their fifth strate­gic plan­ning meet­ing Mon­day and talked about the county’s most press­ing is­sues, in­clud­ing try­ing to cut the mil­lage rate (in­for­mally called the prop­erty tax rate) and keep its prom­ise to tax­pay­ers.

Low­er­ing the mil­lage rate

The board voted 4-1 in July to in­crease the county’s mil­lage rate from 10.91 to 11.54, a move that al­lowed the county to col­lect $1.16 mil­lion in prop­erty tax rev­enue it would have oth­er­wise lost be­cause of fall­ing prop­erty val­ues, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by The News.

In her mo­tion to in­crease the rate, Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schulz called for a strate­gic plan­ning process with the “goal of low­er­ing the mil­lage rate in two years”; the board didn’t spec­ify at the time how much it would lower the rate.

Chair­man Keith El­lis said Mon­day he was ready to lower the mil­lage rate this year if pos­si­ble; the county’s bud­get cy­cle runs from July 1 to June 30.

Over the course of the first few strate­gic plan­ning meet­ings, com­mis­sion­ers said they wanted to try to in­crease non-prop­erty tax rev­enue and they echoed those thoughts Mon­day.

One of the most pop­u­lar top­ics early on was look­ing at re­struc­tur­ing the county’s solid waste op­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing the land­fill and re­cy­cling cen­ters; the re­cy­cling cen­ters lose hun­dreds of thou­sands each year, while the land­fill makes a profit.

Com­mis­sioner Le­vie Mad­dox who led the push on the topic early said some move­ment could be made in com­ing weeks and months. He said Mon­day the is­sue had been de­layed be­cause of a law­suit sur­round­ing the county land­fill (the law­suit was men­tioned sev­eral times, but the specifics of the suit were not men­tioned) but County At­tor­ney Tommy Craig was ready to meet with him and Com­mis­sioner Lanier Sims, who will take the lead on ex­plor­ing the pos­si­ble re­struc­tur­ing. The board bandied about nu­mer­ous op­tions, in­clud­ing: Re­view­ing the cur­rent con­tract with Hil­liard Ser­vices, which the county pays to haul off its re­cy­clables The cost of in­ter­nal truck­ing, in­clud­ing main­te­nance costs on an ag­ing fleet, to pull trash from

the re­cy­cling cen­ters to the land­fill.

Hav­ing au­to­mated, self-manned re­cy­cling cen­ters. Stop­ping the col­lec­ti­ion of tires and brush at re­cy­cling cen­ters and lim­it­ing it to the land­fill. Charg­ing a fee to use the re­cy­cling cen­ters. (This was orig­i­nally part of the plan, but has not yet been im­ple­mented; com­mis­sion­ers did not re­ally dis­cuss it Mon­day night, ei­ther.) The re­cy­cling cen­ter sys­tem was im­ple­mented in the 1980s and was ahead of its time, Mad­dox said; how­ever, ac­cord­ing to pre­vi­ous sto­ries, the sys­tem now costs the county around $750,000. County Man­ager John Mid­dle­ton said the sys­tem is only de­signed for around 40,000 to 50,000 peo­ple.

“The cen­ters are valu­able be­cause they di­vert a sig­nif­i­cant amount of po­ten­tial trash from fill­ing up the land­fill.”

Mid­dle­ton sug­gested form­ing a sep­a­rate com­mit­tee and let­ting newly-pro­moted As­sis­tant County Man­ager Tom Gar­rett “run with it.”

El­lis said the goal - tossed out pre­vi­ously - was to im­prove the solid waste by a $1 mil­lion through cost sav­ings and in­crease rev­enue at the land­fill.

On a sep­a­rate note, Com­mis­sioner John Dou­glas asked if the board should con­sider, as a last mea­sure, pulling money out of its re­serves to lower the mil­lage rate. How­ever, Mid­dle­ton said that would only be a one­time so­lu­tion, and the board had said in the past it didn’t want to dip into its re­serves, which af­fects the county’s credit rat­ing, which af­fects the county’s bor­row­ing rates.

Two other top­ics dis­cussed Mon­day could help the county reach its goal of low­er­ing the mil­lage:

Hir­ing a grant writer.

Go­ing to a two-year bud­get cy­cle

Grant writer

Mid­dle­ton said the county put out a re­quest for pro­pos­als for grant writer ser­vices, and the county has re­ceived a cou­ple of pro­pos­als. He said he wanted to go through the pro­pos­als with Com­mis­sioner Sims, as it was Sims’ ini­tia­tive.

Mid­dle­ton said he would come back be­fore the board, which will have the fi­nal vote.

Sims pushed for hir­ing a grant writer as a way to pos­si­bly in­crease rev­enue to work to­ward the goal of re­duc­ing re­liance on prop­erty tax rev­enue. The county set aside $50,000 for a grant writer, or to con­tract with a firm that does grant writ­ing, in this cur­rent bud­get year. The county ap­pears to be head­ing in the di­rec­tion of con­tract­ing with a com­pany to han­dle grant writ­ing.

Two-year bud­get­ing

Mid­dle­ton and the board are pur­su­ing go­ing through a two-year bud­get cy­cle to have bet­ter long-term plan­ning and to not take up half the year ev­ery year on bud­get prepa­ra­tion.

Mid­dle­ton said his plan is to form mul­ti­ple com­mit­tees to study dif­fer­ent parts of the bud­get; the com­mit­tees would be com­posed of depart­ment heads, two com­mis­sion­ers, fi­nance staff, and the county man­ager and as­sis­tant county man­ager.

Mid­dle­ton said the hope is that bring­ing com­mis­sion­ers into the process ear­lier will negate the need for so many long, drawn-out bud­get meet­ings later in the year. Dif­fer­ent com­mis­sion­ers would be on dif­fer­ent com­mit­tees.

Cur­rently, the board has a se­ries of pub­lic bud­get meet­ings in spring, lead­ing up to the bud­get adop­tion in July. Mid­dle­ton said the new for­mat would lead to more com­mit­tee meet­ings (com­mit­tee meet­ings are gen­er­ally not open to the pub­lic un­less there are at least three com­mis­sion­ers present) and be capped off with two to three pub­lic hear­ings, where the pub­lic would be able to give in­put.

Mid­dle­ton said he re­al­ized the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process will be harder be­cause com­mis­sion­ers will be de­cid­ing on two years’ worth of fund­ing, but he said he be­lieved the sys­tem would be ben­e­fi­cial.

Dou­glas raised the con­cern of de­clin­ing rev­enues go­ing into the se­cond year of a two-year cy­cle, but Mid­dle­ton said the bud­get can al­ways be amended and bal­anced when needed.

Com­mis­sion­ers said they wanted to look at ways to get the pub­lic more in­volved, as last year’s bud­get meet­ings were very sparsely at­tended.

Suc­ces­sion plan­ning

With As­sis­tant County Man­ager Gar­rett in place, the most press­ing is­sue was al­ready taken care of be­fore Mon­day’s meet­ing.

How­ever, com­mis­sion­ers agreed they wanted to fo­cus on suc­ces­sion plan­ning both for fu­ture county man­agers and at the depart­ment head level within de­part­ments.

Mad­dox said the board talked about in­creas­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for em­ployee con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion and de­vel­op­ment, and he wanted to see that con­tinue.

The county is still plan­ning to bring in Dave Wills, a lo­cal govern­ment ex­pert for the As­so­ci­a­tion of County Com­mis­sion­ers of Ge­or­gia (ACCG), to hold two work ses­sions in Fe­bru­ary for free to ex­am­ine all of the pos­si­ble govern­ment types the county could choose.

Schulz had asked for the work ses­sion ear­lier this year af­ter Mid­dle­ton an­nounced he was re­tir­ing, be­cause the county’s orig­i­nal de­ci­sion to move to a county man­ager sys­tem and strip some power form the chair­man was a con­tentious 3-2 vote that was met with some pub­lic op­po­si­tion as well as the op­po­si­tion of then- chair­man Kathy Mor­gan.

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