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Residents to sound off on 2010 budget

CONYERS -- A millage rate increase looms as the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners inches closer to approving the 2010 budget. A public hearing is slated for Monday in which residents can provide their input on the budget process.

In a memo released Wednesday, Rockdale County spokeswoman Holly Lafontaine referred to a millage rate increase, "hopefully less than one mill," as part of an option the board will consider during its public budget hearing at 9 a.m. Monday.

"After property evaluations are completed by the Board of Assessors in the summer of 2010, it will be known if the millage rate must be adjusted," Lafontaine said in the written statement.

Other parts of the option to be considered Monday -- seven furlough days for county employees and an increase in the employee contribution for benefits -- have been discussed in previous public meetings.

The possibility of a county millage rate increase came up during a meeting Wednesday morning between Homeowners for Better Government members Sam Smiley and Don Meyer and Rockdale County Tax Commissioner Dan Ray and Finance Director Roselyn Miller.

Miller said she will present a $54.7 million budget to the Board of Commissioners during Monday's budget hearing.

The county started with a $57.2 million budget proposal in September, then made cuts in expenditures, bringing the budget to $55.9 million. The target budget presented Nov. 16 was $53 million.

Whatever is lacking in sales tax revenue has to be made up in increases on tax bills, according to Miller and Ray. The millage rate, approved in July, is currently 14.53 mills.

Revenue projections for next year are estimated at $40 million based on a 4.3 percent decrease in the county's net digest, according to documents supplied by officials during Wednesday's meeting. The net digest is the total amount of taxable property in the county. A decrease in the digest represents a decrease in tax revenue.

In some cases, homes in Rockdale are selling at 30 cents on the dollar, according to Ray.

Meyer was concerned that the budget will be "dramatically impacted" if the reduction in the digest increases.

Despite positive reports from economists, Meyer sees trouble on the horizon for 2011 as the national and international economies struggle to improve and sluggish markets affect county budgets.

"This recession is much longer and deeper than they want to admit to," Ray said.

The officials pointed to newly built county facilities, namely, the new jail and fire stations, that increase public services; however, increased funding to staff the facilities may not be available. Ray and Miller agreed that residents must be willing to pay for services.

Meyer suggested the county set predetermined signals of revenue decreases and give residents the chance to decide to go without certain services to cut expenditures.

Forgoing services could lead to increased property insurance premiums, Ray pointed out, and those increases might equal increased property taxes. Compared to federal and state taxes, residents really get the "biggest bang for the buck" with tangible uses of county taxes, Ray said.

"To continue to provide the quality of service and access to amenities this community has come to expect, the Board of Commissioners and the county as an agency must make some sacrifices, while not laying the entire burden on the employees of the organization who serve this community with dedication and loyalty on a daily basis," Lafontaine said in Wednesday's memo.