Tax office, sheriff seek more funding

COVINGTON -- With preliminary estimates that 100 or more county employees could be laid off and with most departments facing a 14 percent budget cut for fiscal year 2011, constitutional officers and others came before the Board of Commissioners on Monday night to plead their case.

Chairman Kathy Morgan said that while budget work sessions are not typically open for public comment, given the significant cuts that could take place, she would accept comments prior to the business portion of the meeting.

Sheriff Ezell Brown said his department would be hit doubly hard, with a 14 percent cut proposed for both the law enforcement and the detention center budgets, for a total reduction of 28 percent. That would result in 30 detention officers and 28 patrol officers losing their jobs, he said.

"No other department is being hit as hard as the Newton County Sheriff's Office," Brown said. "Some say that equal is not fair, and on this position, I know you're not being fair."

Brown said with nearly 60 employees being cut, "A hit that hard is putting (our service level) back 30 years. Is that the kind of service you want for the citizens of this county?"

Brown pointed out that call volume has increased steadily during the past five years, from approximately 42,000 calls in 2005 to 62,000 in 2009. Calls have already surpassed 25,000 in 2010, he said.

Brown added that while it's important to have parks and other facilities, "What good is it if you can't go there in peace?"

"They're the ones who allow you to rest and sleep in your homes at night," he said of his staff. "When you go out of town, they're the ones who ensure your homes haven't been violated. You're in debt to every one of these officers."

Brown told commissioners to "be a servant and not a politician," and added that when they don't do the right thing in fear of not being re-elected, "You're not doing your job."

He asked the commissioners to reconsider his budget and the proposed cuts.

Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler also asked commissioners to take another look at her budget.

Dingler said her budget has been cut 10 years running, though she serves all tax districts in the county, including the municipalities, the school system, fire, ambulance and hospital.

Dingler said she is being asked to cut $119,000 from her $833,000 budget, which would result in three or four staff positions being cut. She said she is already operating on a shoestring staff of 15.

"Every day is a strenuous day in my office and to cut three to four employees, that would be terrible," she said.

Dingler pointed out that the tax commissioners' office has generated more than $2 million in revenues for the county from fines and fees this fiscal year.

Supporters of the Newton County Library also spoke out. Lois Upham, a member of the Library Board of Trustees, encouraged commissioners to open the new branch library in west Newton as planned. It has been proposed that the opening of the library be delayed to save money.

Upham said doing so could jeopardize state funding, noting that the state is paying two-fifths of the cost of the library. The county will also have to continue to financially support systems such as PINES and Galileo if it wants those services available to residents, she said.

Upham said there is a one-year warranty on the new building so that problems may be identified after it is opened.

"If we don't open on schedule, this opportunity may be forfeited," she said.

Wendy Harrington, an employee of the library, said it has been doing with less for a long time. "We're like Ginger Rogers. We're dancing backwards in high heels," she said.

Two residents, who are also spouses of county employees, asked that commissioners consider increasing the millage rate.

Bill Hooson, husband of Animal Control Director Teri Key-Hooson, said he wants the same level of service he's come to expect, and noted that adopting the rollback rate won't mean a tax increase for most people who experienced a reduction in value of their properties. Hooson pointed out that the millage rate has not increased since 2000, when it was reduced to 9.73 mills. He said refusing to increase the millage rate when needed is just as irresponsible as adopting an overinflated rate.

"You cannot take the easy way out by continuing to cut services to the families of this county without dire, long-term consequences," he said.

Patrick Durusau, husband of Newton County Library employee Carol Durusau, said there is a demand from the public as to the country's level of service. With expenses going up, "What would a commercial business do? They'd raise their prices," he said.

"Rather than see us debate the heartbreaking choices you'll face ... why don't we change the debate to what the citizens of Newton County are willing to pay for the services they've been getting to keep their friends and neighbors employed," he said.