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County faces more budget trouble

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- Newton County commissioners had to make tough decisions last year to make up a budget shortfall, and it looks like their job won't be any easier this year.

Commissioners heard this week there will likely be a 10 percent decline in the tax digest. Estimated revenues for fiscal year 2012 are $43.7 million, some $2.5 million less than this year's budget. Property taxes are expected to decline from more than $25.8 million to around $23.2 million, and revenue from departmental fees and services are also projected to decrease.

Department heads have submitted nearly $51 million in budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in July, making the difference between expected revenues and budget requests more than $7.2 million. Many are asking for the same amount or less than they received last year, although a few, such as the Sheriff's Office, fire and public works, are requesting more. Some of the budget requests, such as vehicles for the public works and the Sheriff's Office, will be covered by SPLOST, approved by voters last month, said Chairman Kathy Morgan.

Commissioners approved the rollback millage rate of 10.91 mills last year. Morgan said an increase will have to be considered, but the hope is to keep it to the rollback rate, or the amount needed to generate the same amount of revenue.

"We are hugely better off because SPLOST passed. We think we can do this. If SPLOST had not passed I cannot tell you the significant increase; there would definitely have to be an increase in the millage to more than the rollback rate. We thank the voters so much. They passed SPLOST, and we're trying to keep the millage as close to the same as possible," Morgan said.

The county has cut its workforce two years running, and Morgan said she's not sure it can function with more layoffs.

"I can't speak for the constitutional officers, but from my side of the house, we cannot afford to cut staff. We already have staff working in two departments trying to fill needs and requests coming in. We will have to close departments ... We are at that point," she said. "The cuts we took last year have really affected our level of service."

Morgan said employees are doing multiple jobs and departments are struggling to function when someone needs time off.

"That shouldn't happen. Our employees shouldn't have to choose between their families and their jobs. You can burn that candle at both ends for so long and eventually you see wear and tear on the staff, and we're already seeing it. We're already at a minimum level of staffing for a county this size," she said.

County revenues have declined by nearly $6 million since 2008 and if projections for fiscal year 2012 hold true, that will increase to nearly $9 million.

The county's fund balance has taken a $9 million hit over the last three years and is now down to a little more than 9 percent. As few as five years ago, it exceeded 25 percent. The county's auditor, Wayne Tamplin, said for this new fiscal year the board will have to come up with policies to ensure there are enough funds in reserve to operate the county. He recommended transferring money from the capital improvements fund to bring the balance up to 12 to 15 percent.

"The most important thing is the solvency of the county. We have to ask do we have enough funding to operate a county of 100,000 people, not only in the eyes of the people of Newton County but in the eyes of our credit underwriters and state agencies," Morgan said.

Morgan said this is just the first round of budget talks and once the department heads finish making presentations to commissioners, she and Administrative Officer John Middleton will work to tweak the numbers and bring another proposal back to the board.

Morgan said the county is looking at creative ways to save money such as taking advantage of free training for employees and looking at grant applicants to make sure the required matching investment is worth the benefit.

The public can email suggestions to budget@co.newton.ga.us.

Commissioners will hear requests from department heads for the next six weeks. The final budget will be proposed at a May 23 work session and the budget and millage are scheduled to be adopted June 21.