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County may have to cut workers
Plans call for laying off about 50 Newton employees

COVINGTON - To balance the upcoming budget without increasing the millage rate, Newton County commissioners are considering terminating 46 to 62 county employees.

The total of all funding requests for the fiscal year 2010 budget was $57.7 million, about $9.9 million more than projected revenues of $47.8 million, according to Administrative Assistant John Middleton.

After cutting requests for additional personnel and capital expenditures, that difference has been reduced to $4.9 million.

At a budget work session held Monday night at the Newton County Historic Courthouse, commissioners looked at two scenarios to balance the budget: One would cut 62 full-time employees, which, based on an assumption of a $50,000 value per employee, including benefits, would save nearly $3.1 million.

Under that scenario, district appropriation requests from commissioners would still be funded, along with economic development initiatives that are in the works and rehabilitation of the Cousins Gym.

The second scenario would cut the county work force by 46 employees, saving $2.3 million, and leaving the appropriations, initiatives and Cousins Gym project unfunded.

A total of 595 employees are paid out of the general fund. If reductions are done on a pro rata basis, meaning each department would be cut based on its percentage of budget expenditures, public safety would take the hardest hit.

The Newton County Sheriff's Office, which accounts for more than 43 percent of budget expenditures, would lose 17 to 27 of its 258 employees. Newton County Fire Services, which accounts for 13.6 percent of the budget, would lose four to seven of its 81 positions.

Four to six employees would be eliminated from the Public Works department, which employs 63 and accounts for 10.6 percent of the budget.

The Planning and Development Department would lose seven out of 19 full-time employees in both scenarios, in part due to the decline in permits and other growth-related tasks performed by that department, Middleton said.

Several other departments, including the Board of Elections; Tax Commissioner and Tax Assessors offices; District Attorney's Office; Probate and Magistrate Court; Juvenile Court; Solid Waste; and Water Resources will see a reduction of one or two employees.

Remaining employees will also no longer get holiday pay.

Commissioners expressed concern over the number of public safety workers that would be affected.

District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming said he would prefer to make more cuts in other departments, while District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said such a drastic reduction would be "a recipe for chaos in our community."

Chairman Kathy Morgan recommended increasing the millage rate from 9.73 mills to 10.308 mills, which would increase revenue and require a reduction of only 15 employees.

"There's not an employee or an area in this county that I think is not a necessary service that we need to provide," Morgan said.

The increase in the millage would not mean a tax increase for most individual homeowners, due to a decrease in assessments, Morgan said.

"But that generates more revenue, right? That's going to increase somebody's taxes, right?" said District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing. "That's a tax increase. I still am opposed to that in favor of the 9.73 millage rate."

District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz added that, "I think we have to recognize if we increase the rate, it increases on businesses as well and they pay a large percentage. I don't think we want to discourage any businesses from locating in this community."

The board has reached an informal consensus that it is not in favor of a tax increase, which means a large employee reduction looks likely. That will translate to diminished services, Morgan said.

"We can't afford to lose five employees much less 62. Whatever we do with this budget is going to affect services in Newton County," she said.

Jenny Carter with the County Attorney's Office said the county must follow proper procedure when enacting a staff reduction, which would mean following all state and federal labor laws.

A committee possibly comprised of a representative from human resources, the chairman and department heads would develop criteria to determine positions that should be eliminated, she said.

Length of employment, performance evaluations and disciplinary history will be considered, she said. Positions mandated by the state or federal government cannot be eliminated, she added.

Once the Board of Commissioners approves a list of positions and employees to be cut, affected employees will receive a two-week notice prior to termination.

Commissioners went into closed session following the meeting to discuss specific positions.

Some commissioners said they would like to take appropriation requests and economic development initiatives off the table to save jobs.

Fleming said the budget includes more than $100,000 for charrettes, or community planning sessions, and $60,000 for a Georgia Tech professor to advise on projects.

"I don't see how we can look at the employees and say we're going to lay you off, but we're going to pay $60,000 to bring someone from Georgia Tech here and put them in an office," Fleming said.

But District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz disagreed.

"I feel very strongly we've got to have some economic development in this county because part of the reason we're in the position we're in is because we have an unbalanced tax base, so I'm very concerned about eliminating those entirely," Schulz said, adding that commissioners should look at cutting costs rather than eliminating initiatives entirely.

The board will hold its next budget work session at 7 p.m. Monday at the Newton County Historic Courthouse, located at 1124 Clark St.

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