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Budget gets nod based on rollback

COVINGTON -- County commissioners approved a $46.3 million budget based on a rollback millage rate of 10.9 Tuesday night.

The millage rate will not be officially adopted until commissioners' July 6 meeting due to advertising requirements. The county had advertised its tax digest based on the current millage rate of 9.73. The rollback rate must be advertised for 14 days and a public hearing held before it is approved. The rollback rate is what is required for taxing authorities to see the same amount of property tax revenue as in the preceding year.

Property tax revenues were down nearly 17 percent this year.

The vote was 3 to 2, with Commissioners Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming in opposition.

Adoption of the rollback rate reduced the number of county employees to be laid off by about half -- approximately 50 employees will be cut, according to Chairman Kathy Morgan.

The Sheriff's Office, court system and Tax Commissioner's Office -- departments led by constitutional officers -- will benefit, seeing their budgets reduced by 5 percent instead of 14 percent.

Sheriff Ezell Brown wrote commissioners a letter, portions of which he asked be read into the minutes, stating that the proposed cuts under the current millage rate would affect public safety for citizens.

Brown would have potentially lost 58 employees, but will now lose about 22.

"I want to thank the Board of Commissioners for digging deep and considering all the facts and considering the county government as a whole," Brown said after the meeting. Brown said the department will still be significantly affected but will "continue to strive to do more with less and be the great department the citizens of this county expect us to be."

Commissioners spent an hour and 20 minutes in closed session prior to voting on the budget, citing the need to discuss personnel and litigation issues.

Once back in regular session, they each justified their positions.

Commissioner Mort Ewing said he was concerned about the level of emotion on display throughout the budget process and personal attacks against commissioners, including allegations that some don't understand how to calculate a millage rate or balance a budget. He said he had been criticized by at least one citizen who didn't understand that the rollback rate was not a rollback of taxes, but rather, an increase.

Ewing said he would not support a tax increase because of the impact it would have on small businesses and industry.

Hunter Hall, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, asked commissioners to consider that impact during a public hearing prior to the meeting. Hall said increasing the millage rate would potentially prolong the economic recovery for businesses and industry.

Jerry Silvio of Silvio Development Company, who has developed 5 million square feet of industrial space in Newton, said taxes are a component industries look at when deciding where to locate.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said that while she sympathizes with the plight of the small business owner, being one herself, she is more concerned about cuts to public safety.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson said this was the first time in his 14 years on the board he's had to consider raising taxes to keep residents safe, but that a majority of constituents he's talked with support a millage hike to keep services they need.

But Commissioner Tim Fleming said services will be impacted regardless of which millage rate is adopted.

"It's my belief that instead of raising the millage rate and taxes, we have to cut expenditures. That's what my constituents have to do at home," he said.

He said with the school board raising its millage to the maximum rate allowed and at least one municipality considering a millage increase, residents should not be fooled into thinking their taxes will not increase.

"When times are tough and revenues aren't coming in, it's easy to say let's raise taxes," Fleming said, adding that commissioners need to make tough choices rather than increasing taxes at the first sign of trouble.

Those comments prompted an impassioned response from Commissioner Earnest Simmons, who said the board has worked for months and looked at every option before making the decision to increase the millage rate.

"To say the first thing we do is raise taxes, that is an unmitigated lie. Let me say that again, that is an unmitigated lie," he said.

Simmons said some constituents may not like the decision and it may cost him some votes, but he will do what's right while serving as a commissioner.

"Be honest with yourself. Don't worry about being re-elected," he said, to claps and whistles of approval from many county employees in attendance.

Simmons said he doesn't want to raise taxes but has to think about the impact to public safety.

"What a small business owner wants more than anything else is for his business to be safe, for his business to be there when he gets there in the morning," he said.

Eight people spoke during the public hearing prior to the meeting. Aside from Hall and Silvio, all asked commissioners to increase the millage.

Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler said the average homeowner will see a $40 to $60 increase on his or her tax bill, but added that 98 percent saw a decrease in property values, so many will still see a reduction or a smaller increase.

Oxford resident Claude Sitton said he's willing to pay more to protect critical county services.

"If you own property in this county, you ought to be very happy to pay that amount for these vital services the county provides for you," he said.

This budget is more than $2 million less than last year's. It includes an appropriation of $300,000 for the Porter Memorial Branch Library currently under construction.

Commissioners had considered delaying the library's opening to next fiscal year to save money. A proposal to bring the solid waste and lawn maintenance contracts in-house that could save more than $300,000 annually is still being considered, according to Morgan.

A public hearing on the rollback millage rate will be held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 6, at the Newton County Historic Courthouse, located at 1124 Clark St. Adoption of the millage rate will follow at the board's regular 7 p.m. meeting.