County enacts spending/hiring freeze

COVINGTON - By a vote of 3 to 2, county commissioners implemented a spending and hiring freeze Tuesday night.

The freeze is in effect through June 30, the end of the county's fiscal year.

The decision came after a report by Finance Director Marcia Allen, who estimated the county will see a shortfall of up to $3.5 million at the end of this fiscal year. Part of that hinges on whether the state releases homestead relief dollars to local governments. Gov. Sonny Perdue threatened last year to withhold the money due to a state shortfall, but the decision rests with the General Assembly.

Newton County stands to lose $1.8 million if the money does not come through, according to Allen.

The freeze would apply to expenditures of more than $10,000, including capital expenditures, capital improvements, furniture, fixtures, vehicles, machinery and equipment. Exceptions are expenses that are necessary to the day-to-day operations of the county, legal services, emergency services, law enforcement and fire services, special projects and constitutional officers.

Expenditures in excess of $10,000 must come before the board for approval. Previously, that threshold was $20,000.

District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming supported the measure.

"I feel like it's the Board of Commissioners' job to be proactive rather than reactive, and that is what this policy has been enacted for," he said.

"Times are tough. Our citizens are hurting. People are losing their jobs. People are having to tighten their belts at home. I think we are showing fiscal responsibility and accountability by showing the taxpayers of the county we're going to do the same thing in the county," he added. "We're cutting back where we can to show citizens their tax dollars are being spent wisely. If we can do without something now, we're going to do without it."

But District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said a work session was warranted and more information was needed before a decision could be made.

Schulz said she opposed the decision because commissioners did not have a complete financial report on projected shortfalls.

"I feel very strongly we have to be good stewards of this money because this is taxpayer money. We must base our decision on having full information, which we will not have until the end of January," she said. "I feel like some of those decisions were made on political expedience and not based on judgment with full information."

The hiring freeze was informally implemented in July and the county has not been filling vacant positions that were not deemed necessary since that time, according to Human Resource Director Becky Heisten.

"Whenever positions opened, we've advertised in house and given the employees the opportunity to move from where there's not much of a demand to where there is more demand," she said.

The county's work force has been reduced by approximately 20 employees due to this policy, she said.

Both the spending freeze and hiring freeze were approved 3 to 2, with Fleming, District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson and District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons in favor and Schulz, along with District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing, in opposition.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.