Morgan in support of rollback rate

COVINGTON -- County Commission Chairman Kathy Morgan is asking commissioners to consider adopting the rollback millage rate to lessen budget cuts to public safety and courts.

"These mandated services have to run smoothly in order for the county to run smoothly," Morgan told the board Tuesday night. She urged commissioners to "be sure the decision you make is right for all of Newton County."

Morgan previously said a majority of commissioners are opposed to increasing the millage rate to generate additional revenue. The millage rate has remained at 9.73 for the past decade. If the rollback rate of 10.9 mills is adopted, it would generate an additional $2.7 million in revenue, which would largely go to the Newton County Sheriff's Office and the court system.

Draft budgets presented to commissioners last month showed a budget decrease of 14 percent for all court offices, including Superior, Magistrate, Probate and Juvenile courts; the clerk of courts; the district attorney and public defenders offices. The sheriff's office would take a 13.6 percent cut on both the law enforcement and detention center sides. Sheriff Ezell Brown has said that will be the equivalent of nearly 60 employees. If the rollback rate is adopted, those cuts could be reduced to 5 percent for the court system and NCSO.

Due to a $5.2 million shortfall, the county could lay off 100 or more employees if the current millage rate is maintained. Asked by Commissioner J.C. Henderson how many employees could be saved if the rollback rate is adopted, Administrative Officer John Middleton said he had a ballpark number but did not want to disclose it. Middleton said he could have a more firm number and additional information for commissioners at a work session next week.

The work session is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Newton County Historic Courthouse, though Commissioners Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming said they don't think it's needed.

"I think we can meet 12 more times and have new information every time. If the consensus of the board is to have another meeting, then so be it, but it appears to me we're just putting off the inevitable," Ewing said.

Fleming said he's disappointed the board hasn't yet made a decision, noting it has had budget information for more than two months.

But Commissioner Earnest Simmons said he wants more information, including updates on any additional revenue that may come through at the last minute.

"I'm not going to sit here and lay people off when we might have additional revenue," he said.

The tax digest and proposed millage rate of 9.73 have already been advertised, and Middleton sought the board's approval to continue advertising that rate in order to meet the state's deadline to adopt a balanced budget. By state law, the county must have an approved, balanced budget by June 30. By county charter, that must occur by June 15, Morgan said.

If commissioners adopt the rollback rate, the county will have to advertise the different rate.

Commissioners agreed to continue advertising the current millage rate, but some said that doesn't mean they support it.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz urged the board to consider the rollback rate.

Schulz said she has serious concerns about the 9.73 millage rate and the impact on residents, services and public safety.

In addition to Tuesday's work session, public hearings on the budget are scheduled for 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and 6:30 p.m. June 15, at the Newton County Historic Courthouse located at 1124 Clark St. Adoption of the budget and the millage rate is expected to take place at the board's regular 7 p.m. meeting on June 15.