County nears budget con­sen­sus

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

County com­mis­sion­ers ap­peared to be close Mon­day to reach­ing a con­sen­sus on next year’s budget, agree­ing to lower the mill­age rate (in­for­mally called the property tax rate) from its cur­rent 11.54 rate to some­where around 11, a change that would save a $150,000 property owner around $30 a year in county taxes.

Com­mis­sion­ers dis­cussed two budget op­tions in depth Mon­day, a $47.25 mil­lion one that would be pos­si­ble at a mill­age rate of 10.99 and a $47.71 mil­lion one that would re­quire a rate of 11.225.

The con­sen­sus was to ei­ther go with the 10.99 rate or a rate slightly higher, maybe 11.1, that meet com­mis­sion­ers’ pri­or­i­ties. These in­clude elim­i­nat­ing em­ploy­ees’ re­main­ing five fur­lough days, up­grad­ing the county’s

county’s com­puter soft­ware, adding a se­cu­rity sys­tem to the New­ton County Ad­min­is­tra­tion Build­ing to keep out guns and adding more books to the bare-shelved Porter Me­mo­rial Branch Li­brary on Ga. High­way 212.

Ei­ther budget op­tion, or one in be­tween, would rep­re­sent an over­all in­crease from last year’s $45.95 mil­lion budget, in­clud­ing more property tax rev­enue – even with the mill­age rate re­duc­tion – as well as in­creased rev­enue from the one-time sales tax fee on new ve­hi­cle pur­chases the state im­ple­mented a cou­ple of years ago.

The in­crease would be pos­si­ble even though reg­u­lar sales tax rev­enue has not been as high as county of­fi­cials had hoped given signs of a re­bound­ing econ­omy.

10.99 rate

Chair­man Keith El­lis kicked off the meet­ing by propos­ing the 10.99 rate, a rate that had not been dis­cussed pre­vi­ously, but is close to the 10.91 mill­age rate the county had be­fore com­mis­sion­ers raised it to 11.54 for the cur­rent year.

El­lis said the 10.99 rate would re­duce to­tal property taxes by about $1.1 mil­lion, leav­ing that money in the hands of cit­i­zens, who he said would likely rein­vest that money in the lo­cal econ­omy.

The 10.99 rate would bring in a to­tal of $21.7 mil­lion in property tax rev­enue, which in­cludes the taxes paid of land, homes, tim­ber, mo­tor ve­hi­cles still un­der the an­nual birth­day tax sys­tem and mo­bile homes.

Com­bined with other county rev­enues – in­clud­ing depart­ment fees for var­i­ous ser­vices, sales taxes and oth­ers – the to­tal budget at the 10.99 rate would be $47.25 mil­lion. As con­structed, that budget num­ber in­cluded elim­i­nat­ing em­ployee fur­lough days and up­grad­ing the county’s soft­ware – a ne­ces­sity af­ter Mi­crosoft stops sup­port­ing Win­dows XP.

How­ever, it doesn’t in­clude in­stalling a new se­cu­rity sys­tem at the county ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing or pro­vid­ing books to the Porter Me­mo­rial Li­brary. Those two items cost $217,665, $167,665 for the se­cu­rity sys­tem and $50,000 for books. There was also dis­cus­sion of adding only $25,000 for books.

Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schulz sug­gested rais­ing the mill­age rate to 11.1, which would ex­actly cover the additional $217,665; how­ever, when El­lis sug­gested keep­ing the rate at 10.99, Schulz said she was fine if money for those two items could be taken from an­other part of the budget.

Us­ing re­serves?

How­ever, Schulz and com­mis­sion­ers Le­vie Maddox and Lanier Sims all said they were op­posed to tak­ing any money of the county’s re­serve ac­count, which is around $7 mil­lion (it’s sup­posed to stay above 15 per­cent of the budget), though ex­act fig­ures weren’t given Mon­day. The amount of money in the re­serve ac­count is tied to the county’s credit rat­ing, which af­fects the rates the county gets when it takes out loans or sells bonds.

El­lis was com­fort­able tak­ing some money of the re­serve ac­count, be­cause the county is ex­pect­ing a budget sur­plus this year.

Com­mis­sioner John Dou­glas was even more in fa­vor of tak­ing money of the re­serve ac­count. He sup­ported the 10.663 rate – this is called the roll­back rate and is the rate at which property tax col­lec­tions for land and build­ings would re­main the same tak­ing into ac­count value changes (this year to­tal property value in New­ton County is ris­ing, so the roll­back rate would be lower to ad­just).

Dou­glas said he wanted to use re­serves to cover any nec­es­sary ex­penses above the to­tal rev­enues ($46.6 mil­lion) that would be raised if a 10.663 mill­age rate is used.

“I think the re­serve fund is there to ben­e­fit the county. What good is it if we never use the thing?” Dou­glas said.

Dou­glas’s ar­gu­ment is that any­thing be­sides the 10.663 rate is tech­ni­cally a tax in­crease, and he’s right ac­cord­ing to state law. Even if the mill­age rate is low­ered to 10.99 or 11, some property own­ers will still pay more in taxes depend­ing on how much their property value in­creased in 2014.

How­ever, Schulz said the board’s com­mit­ment to tax­pay­ers was to lower the mill­age rate within two years.

New ex­penses

Sev­eral de­part­ments and other groups would see in­creases un­der the county’s new budget, with some of the more sig­nif­i­cant in­creases be­ing:

An additional $603,845 in per­son­nel ex­pense, much of that com­ing from elim­i­nat­ing em­ploy­ees’ re­main­ing five fur­lough days (the salary in­crease is ac­tu­ally $1.15 mil­lion, but it’s off­set from $327,804 in health in­sur­ance sav­ings for the county)

An additional $182,863 for the Board of Elec­tions be­cause of the Gen­eral Elec­tion later this year

An additional $46,000 to the Cov­ing­ton-New­ton County Cham­ber of Com­merce to pay half the cost of the fairly new commercial/re­tail re­cruiter

El­lis said six po­si­tions would be in­creased from part time to full time, but he didn’t spec­ify which po­si­tions would be in­cluded

Em­ployee raises

Of­fi­cials also dis­cussed whether they could give county em­ploy­ees ac­tual raises af­ter years of hold­ing pay steady dur­ing the eco­nomic down­turn.

El­lis said he’d like to see em­ploy­ees get a 0.75 per­cent raise by us­ing the money the county gets from sell­ing tim­ber on property at the county’s land­fill on Lower River Road. The ex­act amount of money gen­er­ated from the tim­ber sale wasn’t men­tioned Tues­day.

Su­san Gray, a visi­ta­tion deputy at the New­ton County De­ten­tion Cen­ter, gave an im­pas­sioned speech dur­ing cit­i­zen com­ments, say­ing her co­work­ers are be­ing over­worked be­cause the Sher­iff’s Of­fice is con­stantly short­handed be­cause of con­stant turnover re­lated to poor pay.

“I’ve seen people I dearly trea­sure leave be­cause they would have noth­ing to re­tire on,” Gray told the board.

She said the qual­ity of em­ploy­ees is be­ing neg­a­tively af­fected both be­cause people are dis­sat­is­fied on the job and be­cause more qual­i­fied em­ploy­ees are leav­ing. And many more might have to leave, in­clud­ing her, be­cause they’re strug­gling to pay their ba­sic bills.

Ear­lier in the meet­ing, both com­mis­sioner Maddox and J.C. Hen­der­son spoke about the need to com­mu­ni­cate to em­ploy­ees that they are val­ued and that the board is in­vest­ing in the county to move it for­ward.

Maddox ex­pressed con­cern for pub­lic safety em­ploy­ees in par­tic­u­lar, say­ing the board needs to se­ri­ously con­sider the needs of the Sher­iff’s Of­fice, fire depart­ment and emer­gency med­i­cal ser­vice. He said com­pa­nies won’t want to lo­cate in New­ton County if it doesn’t have strong ser­vice in all three ar­eas.

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