County facing 'brutal' budget cuts

COVINGTON -- Newton County commissioners are facing a $5.2 million budget deficit that means cuts this year will be "brutal," according to Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan.

The county is expecting revenues to total $42,843,813, about 14 percent short of what is needed to have a balanced budget as required by law.

As many as 120 county employees could be laid off, Morgan said Wednesday, based on initial projections. She said she will be meeting with department heads in the coming days to try to find ways to reduce that number as much as possible.

"A significant number will be impacted. It could be between 100 and 120. It could be as little as 50. We don't know until we meet with department heads. Things they were not willing to give up when they first sat down with us, they may be more willing to give up now," Morgan said.

Everything that can be done to reduce the number of job losses will be done, Morgan said, from identifying employees who want to take early retirement to those willing to cut their hours to keep their jobs and benefits.

Whatever the final total winds up being, residents should prepare for services to be affected, Morgan warned.

"Anything that remotely looked like fluff was removed last year. This year we're having to cut into the core," she said. "Last year, we took the skin off. This year we're having to cut into the bone ... This year, there will not be an area that is not affected. If you do business with the county government this year, there will be some consequences to these cuts."

County commissioners must make priority services that are mandated by the state and federal government and those that are required by the county charter, such as the public works department, she said.

The Board of Commissioners received two proposals from Morgan and Administrative Officer John Middleton at a work session Monday night: One that would keep the millage rate at 9.73 mills and another to adopt the rollback rate of 10.9 mills. Though the rollback rate would bring in more than $2.7 million in additional revenue, Morgan said commissioners at this point are not in favor of that option.

"Only one commissioner has told me to even consider that. Two have said definitely not because it's a tax increase. Maybe technically the state says we can take the rollback rate without advertising a tax increase, but it's a tax increase. It's a tax increase for business, for industry and for anyone who did not get their home reassessed at a lower value," she said.

Morgan said the millage rate has not increased in about a decade, though the population has grown significantly.

"Unless we raise revenues, which means a millage rate increase, this is the fairest way to balance the budget," she said, noting that commissioners have requested that cuts be made as equally as possible across the board.

Under the draft proposal that would keep the millage rate the same, most departments would face budget cuts of 14.5 percent, to match the percentage decline in revenues. Though last year commissioners made an effort to keep the Sheriff's Office funded at the previous year's level, this year it would also face a large budget cut of 13.6 percent on both the law enforcement and detention sides, under the proposal.

Every possible cost-saving measure is being considered, Morgan said. That includes delaying the opening of the new branch library on the west side of the county, although Morgan noted that she recently became aware of a grant that funds maintenance and operations for new libraries that could potentially help in that area.

Consolidation of departments such as engineering, public works and water resources, is also being considered, as is sharing office space to reduce utilities.

"That may save only $12,000 a year, but if we can do that with two offices, that's one net employee," Morgan said.

The county currently has about 610 positions, though some are vacant due to a hiring freeze. Under the worst case scenario, Newton County could lose one-sixth of its work force.

"If we lose 100 employees, that's just like a business closing down. The economic impact is like losing an industry," Morgan said. Combined with staffing cuts the Board of Education is considering, economic development in Newton County is going to be significantly affected, she said.

Commissioners will also have to consider how unemployment payouts could affect the budget.

If 100 employees are cut, the county's portion of unemployment would be approximately $1.71 million for fiscal year 2011, and over two years it would be double that.

There are no capital expenditures in the budget with the exception of the 1 mill, or approximately $2.4 million designated to public works for road repairs.

The next county budget work session will take place at 6 p.m. Monday at the Newton County Historic Courthouse, located at 1124 Clark St.