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Board reaches consensus on budget
Millage to remain at current rate; 16 jobs to be cut

COVINGTON - After months of debate and a process one commissioner called painful and grueling, the Board of Commissioners reached a consensus on how to balance the fiscal year 2010 budget at a work session Wednesday night.

Thanks to about $646,000 in revenue beyond what was initially projected, and to cost-cutting measures, the millage rate will remain at 9.73 mils and only 16 employees will be terminated.

Originally, officials said between 45 and 62 employees would be terminated if the millage remained the same.

The county received the final numbers for the 2009 tax digest last Friday showing an additional $646,623 in tax revenue, which Commissioner Nancy Schulz called "a blessing."

Chairman Kathy Morgan called it a "no frills" budget containing no new capital improvements or purchases or increase in funding for any department.

Other measures taken to offset a nearly $5 million shortfall in funding include requiring employees to take 15 unpaid holidays per year, reducing appropriations to E-911 and the solid waste department, and reducing overtime.

All departments have seen budget cuts with the exception of the Sheriff's Office, which will be funded at the current level again next year. Sheriff Ezell Brown will not get a requested $1.8 million in additional funding, but the department will be spared any staffing cuts.

Morgan said residents should expect services to be impacted by budget cuts.

The millage rate has been held at 9.73 over the last several years, with more revenue generated through growth and reassessments, she said, but the growth is now stagnant and the tax digest has decreased by nearly 4 percent.

"We are in this shape because our tax digest is inverted. We do not have enough industry or commercial development in Newton County to provide a sustainable budget, and this has created a burden on the individual homeowner, as well as a strain on our revenue system," Morgan said.

She asked the board to revisit the budget in January and, if revenues are higher than projected, fund up to $125,000 for economic development initiatives.

The board, which had been at a stalemate over the budget just last week, unanimously expressed support for the new proposal.

"I think the citizens of Newton County also will appreciate this budget," Schulz said.

Morgan also commented on recent automated, anonymous calls sent to residents opposing a tax increase and pledging support for Republican Commissioners Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming.

"During this budget process, we have had unidentified individuals trying to influence this serious matter by interjecting political chaos and fear-mongering. This is unacceptable. The time for political maneuvering, rumor mills and gossip is over," Morgan said. "The budget set by the Board of Commissioners affects the county's ability to provide services to all the citizens of Newton County. The taxes billed based on this decision affects each and every property owner in this county and should never be taken lightly. I am confident that each commissioner agrees with me on this matter."

A public hearing on the proposed budget and millage rate has been set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 16, in the Newton County Historic Courthouse. The hearing will take place prior to the board's regular 7 p.m. meeting, where the budget is expected to be approved.

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