COVINGTON - County employees were spared a salary cut and a mandatory furlough Wednesday afternoon, as Administrative Officer John Middleton announced department heads had found alternative ways to reduce the budget by more than $1 million.
The Newton County Historic Courthouse was packed with employees waiting to learn their fate at the special called meeting.
Commissioners have been grappling for weeks with how to make up a $5 million budget shortfall. On Feb. 17, after asking department heads to trim their budgets by as much as 20 percent, they approved a $3.8 million spending reduction. With a 10 percent salary reduction or furloughs on the table to make up the remaining shortfall, commissioners agreed to take another week to see if more cuts could be made without affecting employee pay.
During Wednesday's meeting, Middleton said that goal had been achieved.
The lion's share of the reductions came from the Sheriff's Office, which cut $400,000 from its budget. Sheriff Ezell Brown said personnel would not be affected, and public safety would not be compromised by the cuts.
He said the Sheriff's Office was able to reduce spending by forfeiting purchases of several vehicles that have already been ordered, reducing maintenance costs and going through the budget line item by line item to trim wherever possible.
He said reducing personnel was never considered and the spending reductions would not affect the NCSO's ability to protect the county.
"I can assure you we are safe and sound," he said.
In addition to the Sheriff's Office, Newton County Fire Services also slashed $74,000 from its budget, and E911 was reduced by $50,000.
The Public Works Department cut $70,000, and the Newton County Library reduced its appropriations request by $226,000.
The Board of Elections did its part to help by trimming $8,000 from its budget, along with the Emergency Management Agency, which cut $2,000.
The county also got a revenue boost from Local Option Sales Tax revenues collected in December, receiving $194,000 more than projected, according to Middleton.
Commissioners unanimously approved the cuts, which, combined with the $3.8 million in reductions already approved, total $5,023,484.
Commissioners had high praise for employees, who gave more than 120 suggestions on how to reduce costs, and said those ideas will be taken into account as they start working on the 2010 budget in the coming months.
Some of the suggestions included reducing training and travel, canceling staff picnics and Christmas dinner, reducing cell phone usage, continuing to leave open positions unfilled and implementing an unpaid holiday.
Chairman Kathy Morgan said cooperation between employees, department heads, constitutional officers and the board had averted what no one wanted: loss of wages for employees.
But commissioners didn't paint a rosy picture for the future.
Despite the happy ending Wednesday night, more cuts are to be expected for fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1, they warned.
"We're still in a tough situation for the next budget. It's not going to be easy for this board," said District 3 Commissioner Tim Fleming. "There are going to have to be deeper cuts. I think as long as we are working together, it's going to be easier for everybody."
Though Middleton said it's premature to give firm numbers, a revenue reduction of 15 to 20 percent is "not out of the question" for the upcoming budget year.
As the board begins again the task of balancing another budget, they will "plan for the worst and hope for the best," said Morgan.
"I wish I could say the crisis is over but we don't know what the future is," Morgan told employees. "But I know each of you is up to the task and the challenge."
She encouraged employees to continue making cost-savings suggestions via a Web site set up for staffers to e-mail their ideas.
Despite the cautioning that the solution reached Wednesday is only temporary, many employees were breathing a sigh of relief after the meeting, happy, they said, that their pay is secure for now.
"I'm just glad they didn't do it this time, and maybe we can get better prepared for it in July," said Jimmie Aikens with the Roads Department.
"I think it went great. I'm very happy with the end result and very impressed with the commissioners at this time," said NCSO Deputy Kelly Singley.
NCSO Sgt. Tyrone Oliver agreed.
"I think the department heads did what they could to make adjustments to save our salaries. I think they did a good job," he said. "I would like to thank the sheriff, too, for working hard to make the necessary cuts to save our salaries."
Crystal Tatum can be reached at email@example.com.