How the county budget af­fects you

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

Property val­ues are ris­ing, which means property tax rev­enue would rise, but the New­ton County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers promised it would lower the tax rate dur­ing the next two years. This leaves of­fi­cials with the same budget old budget dilemma: keep taxes as low as pos­si­ble or spend more to help em­ploy­ees and im­prove some county ser­vices?

What are the budget op­tions?

Chair­man Keith El­lis and mul­ti­ple com­mis­sion­ers have said the goal is to lower the mill­age rate (the for­mal name for the property tax rate) this year; the ques­tion is “How much?”

If the county was to keep the mill­age rate the same next budget year, it would col­lect an additional $1.73 mil­lion in property taxes – this in­cludes taxes paid on land, build­ings, tim­ber, mo­tor ve­hi­cles and mo­bile homes.

In­creased budget re­quests from de­part­ments were well above that $1.73 mil­lion, which means the com­mis­sion­ers would have tough choices even if they weren’t plan­ning to lower the mill­age rate.

County Man­ager John Mid­dle­ton pre­sented the board with four mill­age rates to show them how much rev­enue would be col­lected un­der each one. (See the ta­ble that goes with this ar­ti­cle.)

While Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schulz is in fa­vor of low­er­ing the rate this year, she cau­tioned against low­er­ing the mill­age rate too much if it meant the county govern­ment would have to turn around and raise it again next year.

What about ex­penses?

The ex­penses side is more com­pli­cated.

For this cur­rent year (the county’s budget years run from July 1 to June 30), the county’s bud­geted ex­penses were $45.95 mil­lion.

The above num­ber in­cludes all de­part­ments ex­cept for the land­fill/re­cy­cling cen­ters and wa­ter depart­ment, which have their own sep­a­rate funds that do not gen­er­ally re­ceive property tax rev­enue (though the re­cy­cling cen­ters lose enough money that their fund re­ceives a sub­sidy).

The num­ber also in­cludes the all the var­i­ous

out­side groups (re­ferred to col­lec­tively as ap­pro­pri­a­tions) the county sup­ports, in­clud­ing the re­cre­ation com­mis­sion, li­brary sys­tem, 911 cen­ter, cham­ber of com­merce and com­mu­nity cen­ters, among oth­ers.

The pro­posed ex­pense for the next budget year is $49.06 mil­lion. So, even if the mill­age rate re­mained at its cur­rent 11.54 rate ($48.83 mil­lion in rev­enue), there would still be a deficit of $728,041.

That $49.06 mil­lion fig­ure in­cludes giv­ing em­ploy­ees back five paid days, elim­i­nat­ing the last of the fur­lough days im­ple­mented dur­ing the cuts fol­low­ing the hous­ing col­lapse. That in­crease alone costs about $500,000.

Ap­pro­pri­a­tions ac­count for $720,933 of the in­crease. How­ever, that’s not all of the re­quests. That $49.06 mil­lion is sim­ply day-to­day costs, such as sup­plies, small equip­ment and main­te­nance costs.

Sev­eral de­part­ments also re­quested new ve­hi­cles, larger equip­ment pur­chases and em­ploy­ees, none of which is in­cluded in the ex­pense to­tal.

While some or all of the $1.48 mil­lion in re­quested ve­hi­cle pur­chases might be able to be cov­ered with re­main­ing 2011 SPLOST ve­hi­cle money, any of the $1.01 mil­lion in equip­ment re­quests and $1.53 mil­lion in new em­ployee re­quests would have to come out of the county’s gen­eral fund (the main county fund, as op­posed to the wa­ter fund and land­fill/re­cy­cling cen­ters fund).

(A big part of the equip­ment re­quest is $283,559 to put metal de­tec­tors at the New­ton County Ad­min­is­tra­tion Build­ing and His­toric Court­house to pre­vent cit­i­zens from car­ry­ing in guns un­der the H.B. 60, which will go into ef­fect July 1. See the re­lated story next to this one for more de­tails on this re­quest.)

All but three of the new em­ployee re­quests are for additional sher­iff’s deputies and jail per­son­nel to deal with ris­ing call vol­ume and a large jail pop­u­la­tion and to cut down on over­time costs and em­ployee burnout, Sher­iff Ezell Brown said af­ter the meet­ing. Mid­dle­ton said these depart­ment costs have not been re­duced at all by the county’s fi­nance staff. He asked the com­mis­sion­ers to give him their budget pri­or­i­ties as they and the county’s staff will need those to be­gin trim­ming the budget to meet what­ever rev­enue to­tal the board se­lects.

The News will present more info on ex­penses in fu­ture edi­tions.

Two-year budget cy­cle

This pro­posed budget is also the first one – at least in the past sev­eral years – to be pre­pared as a two-year budget, de­signed to carry the county from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2016.

So as com­mis­sion­ers pre­pare next year’s budget, they also have to keep in mind some fu­ture plan­ning is­sues.

Few spe­cific 2016 costs were high­lighted Mon­day, with the ex­cep­tion of some short-term debt pay­ments com­ing due in 2016.

How­ever, Mid­dle­ton pro­vided com­mis­sion­ers with some fu­ture items to con­sider, par­tic­u­larly those con­cern­ing county em­ploy­ees.

While county em­ploy­ees won’t have any more fur­lough days, Mid­dle­ton said there were a few more steps needed to make them whole, in­clud­ing:

- Con­duct­ing a wage study to ad­dress wage com­pres­sion given lack of any an­nual raises dur­ing the past sev­eral years

- Restor­ing salary merit in­creases and salary in­creases when em­ploy­ees meet ed­u­ca­tional in­cen­tives

How­ever, any raises will be costly given the county has 500-plus em­ploy­ees. A 1 per­cent pay raise for ev­ery em­ployee would cost the county around $260,000, Mid­dle­ton said, in­clud­ing Medi­care, re­tire­ment and pay­roll tax pay­ments.

Next meet­ing

The Board of Com­mis­sion­ers will have their next pub­lic budget meet­ing at 6:30 p.m., June 9 at the His­toric Court­house. County Com­mis­sioner John Dou­glas asked for the pub­lic to be able to give com­ments dur­ing the June 9 meet­ing, and Chair­man El­lis said that should be pos­si­ble.

To see the budget documents handed out to com­mis­sion­ers Mon­day and see the de­tailed rev­enue and ex­pense data for yourself, visit Cov­ and find this ar­ti­cle.

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