Newton County facing more budget woes

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

The tough times aren't over for Newton County.

Commissioners are bracing for more revenue loss as they begin this year's budget process. Discussions at the annual Strategic Planing Work Session held at Burge Plantation over the weekend focused on county finances.

Though Chief Appraiser Tommy Knight doesn't have projections on how short this year's digest will be, he estimated at least 7.5 percent will be lost on the residential side alone due to foreclosures.

The county's auditor, Wayne Tamplin, of Treadwell, Tamplin and Co., said Newton's digest has been more adversely impacted than surrounding counties such as Oconee, Madison, Rockdale and Walton.

"It seems like we can't find a bottom to it," Tamplin said of the tax digest.

In 2006, the county had $14 million in assets; in 2010 that had decreased to $7.5 million. Tamplin reported a steady decline in assets and equity.

"It's pretty startling as to what's really happened in the last three years," he said.

The county has gone from operating with a surplus of $3.3 million in 2006 and $1.3 million in 2007 to a deficit of $2.7 million in 2008; $4.3 million in 2009; and $2 million in 2010.

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. 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 around 12 percent for this fiscal year, with a goal of reaching 15 percent next fiscal year.

Currently, there is about $3.2 million in the capital improvements fund, and at least $500,000 has been encumbered for projects. Commissioners previously transferred $1.8 million from that fund.

The fund balance took a hit of nearly $900,000 due to overspending by the Newton County Sheriff's Office. According to Tamplin, the sheriff's office did not always follow purchasing policy procedures last year, submitting purchasing orders after the June 30 fiscal year end.

Chairman Kathy Morgan said those expenses were for a variety of items, from uniforms to tires to computers. Commissioner Mort Ewing said a policy needs to be in place to ensure constitutional officers do not spend more than their annual budget.

Morgan said the problem is the Board of Commissioners office does not have direct control over spending for constitutional officers and was not aware of the additional purchases until after the fiscal year had closed. County Attorney Tommy Craig said the county can set a budget for constitutional officers but cannot control how or when they spend it. The Board of Commissioners can require that they stay within the budget, however.

While Morgan said she doesn't have the expertise nor does she want to oversee sheriff's office finances, the department has been over budget for the past two y ears, which is a serious concern. In fiscal year 2010, at Sheriff Ezell Brown's request, commissioners voted to allocate an additional $800,000 to the sheriff's office over what had been budgeted in order to meet operating expenses for the remainder of the year.

Middleton and Morgan said they have met with Brown three times in the last 45 days to discuss the situation and are happy with the results of those meetings.

"We've brought some things to his attention. I don't want to give anybody the impression we're saying he doesn't want to comply," Morgan said.

The sheriff's office is on target to finish out this year on budget, Middleton said.

An associate with the auditing firm advised commissioners they may not have an accurate view of how much it costs to run the sheriff's office, given that discretionary funds, such as seized funds, are kept in a separate account. There are ways to keep those funds separate but include the numbers in with the county's expenses to show a more complete picture, she said.

Craig said Brown has done an excellent job as sheriff based on feedback he's heard.

"We knew when we created a 600-bed jail we were handing somebody a tiger by the tail," he said, adding managing the facility is "a overwhelming job."

"I've seen commissioners and sheriffs get crossways over the years in other counties and I've yet to see a happy ending," he said.

"I have no desire whatsoever to get into a fight with the sheriff. He's doing a good job," said Ewing. "But when we sit at this table next year don't tell me the sheriff is $896,000 over budget. That's all I'm asking."

For more coverage of the weekend's planning session, see upcoming editions of the Citizen.