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County may save green on lawn care

COVINGTON -- Commissioners met again Tuesday night to mull their options regarding the fiscal year 2011 budget.

Facing a more than $5 million shortfall and layoffs of 100 or more employees, they are looking at several options to produce additional revenue or save money, including bringing the county's lawn maintenance and solid waste contracts in-house.

The county contracts with Durden's Lawn Care to do lawn maintenance at an annual cost of $115,720. Commissioners are considering bringing that work in-house to be done by inmates or those doing community service as part of a court sentence, at a savings of $70,080 annually.

Durden has offered to drop his contract price by $12,000, but the county would still stand to save about $58,000 by bringing the service in-house.

"Mr. Durden has done an excellent job, but it's like so many other things we're having to do. We don't have the money to pay him and we're having to figure out another way to get it done for a lesser price," Commissioner Mort Ewing said on Wednesday.

Part of Durden's contract is lawn care at the county's recycling centers at a cost of $67,080. Commissioners are looking at potentially hiring displaced employees from other departments at $9 an hour to take over that work. Commissioner Tim Fleming suggested having current recycling center employees maintain the grass areas as part of their jobs to completely eliminate that cost.

But Commissioner J.C. Henderson said commissioners should consider the potential liability of bringing lawn maintenance in-house and the additional cost of purchasing mowers and other equipment. He also said if recycling center employees must cut the grass, they may not be able to keep up with their other duties.

The county contracts with Junior Hilliard General Services to staff and maintain recycling centers at an annual cost of $457,200. If that service is brought in-house, the county would save $242,352 a year.

"If you can save a quarter of a million dollars it doesn't make sense not to look at it seriously," Ewing said.

Some commissioners had questioned whether the county could withdraw from its fund balance to make up part of the shortfall, but Administrative Officer John Middleton said that based on conversations with the county's accountant, "The fund balance is not a source for us to be looking at, at this time."

Middleton said the county should maintain at least enough in the fund balance to cover two months of maintenance and operations expenses, or about 17 percent. Currently the fund balance is down to 15 percent, its lowest point in recent memory.

Middleton said the fund balance is used to pay for day to day operations and make employee payroll. Commissioners drew out $800,000 this fiscal year to meet overages in the sheriff's budget, which has not been replaced.

"Once you spend from the fund balance, it's gone. The only way you can replace it is to have revenues exceed expenditures," Middleton said.

Morgan said the fund balance is needed to get the county through the critical months of July through September, before property taxes come in.

"I won't go below (15 percent) without kicking and screaming," she said.

An option being considered to generate revenue is requiring the licensing of pets. Animal Control Director Teri Key-Hooson proposed implementing a license fee of $15 per animal, which she estimates could bring in more than $200,000 the first year and more money in the next several years.

Licensing would also help Animal Control verify if an animal has its rabies shots, Morgan said. Residents who have their pets spayed or neutered could pay a reduced fee, she added. If approved by commissioners, a draft ordinance would not be completed until the end of September.

Commissioner Earnest Simmons proposed charging to park in the deck downtown in hopes of generating additional revenue.

But Morgan said the majority of people parking there work for the county or are doing business with the county.

"Certainly we don't want to be punitive to people coming to do business with the county," she said.

Simmons said employees and people on business with the county could be exempted, but he'd like to see a fee imposed for people who park in the deck all day, if possible.

Commissioners also discussed the Gaither Plantation budget. Under this year's current proposal, the county will not allocate any money to Gaither. Last fiscal year, the allocation was $27,000 for maintenance and upkeep and equipment. The salary for the caretaker, who looks after the main home as well as property purchased for the Bear Creek Reservoir, will still be funded through the county's water fund.

"I think it's unfortunate we're considering a very small but very important unit of the county government receiving zero funding. It's more a psychological message than a financial message. If I was on the Friends of Gaither board, I would think the county has very little interest in Gaither Plantation," Ewing said. "It's true it has a little money on hand but that's a lot due to the fact volunteers have worked long and hard to keep the plantation alive and keep it open ... if it had not been for volunteers, Gaither would not be open, in my opinion."

But Simmons said it's no more unfair than the proposal to delay the opening of Porter Memorial Branch Library on the west side of the county. The library is expected to be ready to open in January 2011, but may be delayed six months until the end of the fiscal year in June.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she has misgivings about leaving that building dormant and about cutting the Gaither budget, noting that the facility is a revenue producer for the county through rental fees.

Late in the meeting, Henderson, who has publicly proclaimed to be opposed to a tax increase, said he would be willing to raise taxes enough to keep every county employee, which would require the millage rate be raised from the current 9.73 mills to 12 mills.

He claimed the county has been spending more money than it is taking in, said he doesn't understand why the fund balance has dwindled and alleged that some commission districts are treated with more favor than others.

Morgan said that all commissioners get a financial update on the status of the budget monthly and that the county is audited every year. Every penny spent is accounted for, she said.

The county will hold a public hearing on the budget at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Newton County Historic Courthouse. Commissioners are expected to approve the budget and set the millage rate at their 7 p.m. regular meeting that night.

As proposed, the millage rate will remain at 9.73 mills. Morgan said if commissioners decide to adopt a higher millage rate to generate additional revenue, there will still be time to advertise the new rate and meet the state's June 30 deadline to pass a balanced budget.