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Heads make requests for new budget

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- The population is rising, costs are increasing and several bills under consideration by the state legislature may shift even more responsibilities to local governments, yet county revenue projections continue to slide. In other words, Newton County is faced with providing more services to more people with less money.

County revenue has declined by nearly $6 million since 2008, and if projections for fiscal year 2012 hold true, that will increase to nearly $9 million. At the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Newton County's population grew 60 percent between 2000 and 2010, and now stands just shy of 100,000.

This is the situation confronting the Newton County Board of Commissioners as they prepare to present a proposed budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year. Commissioners anticipate revenue next year will be $43.7 million, $2.5 million less than the current year's budget, and are working to whittle down the $50.9 million in budget requests.

Over the next several weeks, commissioners will hear from department heads. A final budget is slated to be proposed at a May 23 work session. The budget and millage rate are scheduled to be adopted June 21 for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Commissioners Lanier Sims, Nancy Schulz, Tim Fleming and Chairman Kathy Morgan heard budget proposals from four of the elected department heads during a work session Monday night. Those constitutional officers were Probate Court Judge Henry Baker, Clerk of Courts Linda Hays, Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler and Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown.

Newton County Sheriff's Office

Brown has requested $20.28 million for the upcoming fiscal year, more than $2.6 million over this current budget year.

Brown justified this 15 percent increase request, telling commissioners that this past year has been "a remarkable success" despite many crippling budgetary decisions last year that resulted in the reduction of detention officers and uniform division officers.

He praised his officers for their commitment to the job and stepping up to fill the gaps left by the reduction in force.

Brown said his officers are pushed to their limit, like a rubber band that can only stretch so far before it snaps.

"We're at that point now," he said. "We have more officers getting injured and more going out on workers' comp. I hope at some point we can develop a process to make our employees whole again."

The sheriff said officers generally work 12-hour shifts, three days on with two days off. The problem is, he said, each shift is staffed with the minimum number of deputies, so if one or two deputies are off work, due to illness or vacation time, it requires paying other officers for overtime. Brown said this lack of manpower costs the department about $20,000 per pay period.

"Now we have many who will refuse the overtime because they've already worked 20 days straight," he said.

"Instead of taking a scalpel and slowly carving away at the budget, why don't you just take an axe and make one big cut," Brown told commissioners.

Schulz acknowledged said NCSO had done a good job in light of the cutbacks. She told Brown she had a couple of questions about some smaller items in his budget request, but before she could ask about them, the sheriff interrupted her. Brown said hidden cost savings more than make up for any "small items" in his budget request.

He gave examples in which repairs to vehicles or buildings at the sheriff's office were made by NCSO employees, resulting in a savings of more than half of what the lowest bids for the work would have been.

Commissioner Tim Fleming asked the sheriff about some specific line-item requests for vehicles and personnel, and BOC Chairwoman Kathy Morgan asked Brown to provide a summary of all of NCSO's vehicles and employees, including the numbers of patrol and jail deputies assigned for each shift.

In fiscal year 2009, commissioners voted to allocate an additional $800,000 to the NCSO over what had been budgeted in order to meet operating expenses for the remainder of the year.

The NCSO was nearly $900,000 over budget last year, with the excess money withdrawn from the county's reserve fund to balance the budget. According to the county auditor, the NCSO did not always follow purchasing policy procedures, submitting purchasing orders after the June 30 fiscal year end.

Clerk of Courts Office

Clerk of Courts Linda Hays has requested an increase of $5,000 in the upcoming budget. The Clerk's Office is operating this year on a budget of $1.011 million. She told commissioners her office's caseload is increasing despite losing five employees last year due to budget cuts. Hays said she has implemented several cost-saving measures, but anticipating costs can be difficult since it is unknown how many cases and trials will be held from year to year. For example, she mentioned the death penalty trial of Cobey Lakemper, which lasted almost a month. The Clerk's Office pays the 14 jurors for each day of the trial. Hays added that the case was originally filed in 2006, but due to the amount of motions, changes of attorneys and other filings, the case did not go to trial for five years.

"We just can't anticipate the costs on trials," she said.

One area that will affect the Clerk's Office budget, Hays said, is it will now be responsible for the county Board of Equalization. All notices of hearings on property tax appeals and decisions made will be sent by the Clerk's Office, Hays said. She has requested $17,000 for fiscal year 2011-12 for this service.

"That is just a guess," Hays said. "We've never done this before and I have no idea how many appeals we will have without going through a year."

She said county Chief Appraiser Tommy Knight estimated there could be 200 to 250 appeals next year.

Tax Commissioner's Office

Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler has requested $844,801 for the upcoming budget year, an increase of $7,750 over this year's budget. She told commissioners that this number represents 45.54 percent of the commissions collected, and her office is largely self-supported. Dingler said she requested a slight increase this next year for anticipated legal costs and increases in phone service fees. She said that several pieces of legislation in the General Assembly requiring multiple notices to delinquent taxpayers could also result in increased postage fees.

Probate and Magistrate Court

Probate Court Judge Henry Baker has requested a decrease of $1,200 for the Magistrate Court and $2,100 less for the Probate Court in the upcoming year.

"It's pretty much the same as last year," he told commissioners.

He said he did not account for increased costs that could come if the court has to process background checks for certain individuals.

"There may be some additional expenses, but right now, no one can tell us how much that is going to be," the judge said.

Baker said the legislation that could impact this requirement, Senate Bill 102, appears to be tied up in the state House of Representatives and may not be passed this year.

Citizen Staff Reporter Crystal Tatum contributed to this article.