Commissioners at stalemate over budget

COVINGTON - Despite spending four-and-a-half hours trying to balance the fiscal year 2010 budget, commissioners were unable to reach a consensus at a work session Monday night.

Two commissioners were steadfast in opposing any tax increase, while two were in favor of a moderate increase to lessen employee cuts, and the fifth wouldn't support either scenario.

The total of all funding requests for the 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 about $4.8 million.

Commissioners have been considering several ways to make up that shortfall. One option 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, funding for commissioner requests like economic development initiatives, the Nelson Heights Community Center and two radar posts in District 2, would remain.

The second scenario would cut the county workforce by 46 employees, saving $2.3 million, and leaving commissioner requests unfunded.

Both those scenarios would mean leaving the millage at the current 9.73 rate.

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 between 17 and 27 of its 258 employees. Newton County Fire Services, which accounts for 13.6 percent of the budget, would lose between four and seven of its 81 positions.

Under another option, favored by Chairman Kathy Morgan, the millage would be increased to 10.308 mills, requiring a reduction of 15 employees with commissioner requests funded and eight to 10 employees without commissioner requests.

Raising the millage to 10.308 would mean an increase of about $33 on a $150,000 home, according to District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz.

It would also mean an increase of about $20,000 per year for the county's largest industry and about $150 to $300 for medium-sized businesses with about 250 acres of land, she said.

Schulz proposed a middle-of-the-road solution: Raise the millage to 10.0, affecting 30 employees.

With some commissioners still not happy with that solution, particularly with the effect it could have on the sheriff's department, the final option brought before the board was this: Increase the millage to 10.0 and further reduce appropriations to entities such as the Recreation Commission, Senior Services and the library.

Appropriations have already been reduced by 20 percent across the board, but an additional 5 percent would save $190,000.

That would save five more jobs, bringing the number of terminated employees to 25. Of those positions, 21 would come from departments controlled by the Board of Commissioners, with the Sheriff's Office, District Attorney's Office, Tax Commissioners Office and Fire Services giving up one employee each, or the equivalent of $50,000 each in funding.

Two radar posts on Ga. Highway 212 would be funded at $25,000.

In addition, $120,000 in economic development initiatives and $55,000 for the Nelson Heights Community Center would get funding only if more revenues than projected are collected.

Both Schulz and District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons favored that scenario.

A tax increase to 10 mills would be the equivalent of $15 extra on a $150,000 home, roughly $10,000 to the county's largest industry and about $150 for a business that owns 250 acres.

Schulz said commissioners have to consider the impact to businesses because a significant tax increase could result in layoffs, cancellation of plans to expand or even a decision to close shop and relocate.

Commissioners were at a stalemate when the meeting adjourned at 11:30 p.m., with District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing, who left early, and District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming steadfast on not raising taxes.

Ewing said the burden will fall on businesses and owners of agriculture and forestry land, who pay more in taxes for less services.

"A tax increase is a tax increase. You can sugarcoat it all you want. It's still going to raise taxes on families in this community that are suffering and hurting right now," Fleming said.

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he will not support cutting more than 15 employees, but still wants the millage at 10.0, which Morgan said isn't feasible.

"We don't have anything else to cut," she said.

On Tuesday, Schulz said she was frustrated by the lack of consensus.

"It's frustrating to me because what we ended up with last night seemed to be the more fair solution to everybody in the county," she said. "It's not going to be panacea for anybody. Everybody has to give up something."

Whatever commissioners decide, remaining county employees will be required to take 15 holidays without pay - they are currently paid for 10 annual holidays. No merit increases or capital expenditures have been budgeted.

Other ideas, from additional furlough days to borrowing from the fund balance, were floated, but deemed unrealistic or risky.

Imposing additional days off for employees would result in the county being closed between 30 and 46 days per year, which would not be feasible, Morgan said.

The county's fund balance is expected to be at about $8 million, or 16.6 percent of the budget, by the end of the fiscal year, leaving it just $400,000 above the 15 percent minimum required to maintain the current credit rating.

While Simmons supported borrowing from the fund balance, several commissioners and the chairman said that would be bad business.

"We cannot borrow ourselves out of debt and by borrowing money, we put ourselves into debt," Morgan said, noting the county would be borrowing from itself, essentially "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

If the county does not adopt a millage rate and balanced budget by June 30, it cannot bill and collect taxes for 2010, Morgan said.

Another meeting has been tentatively set at 7 p.m. on May 27 at the Newton County Historic Courthouse at 1124 Clark St.

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