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No consensus on budget; Commissioners will miss July 1 deadline

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- Commissioners have yet to reach a consensus on the fiscal year 2012 budget following a two-and-a-half-hour work session Thursday night. They ended the session by agreeing to meet again at 6:30 p.m. Monday to try to find common ground, but even if they do, they won't be able to pass the budget by the start of the fiscal year on July 1 due to public notice requirements.

Commissioners stayed cordial with their words but there was tension on their faces and in their tones as they went line by line through two budget proposals Thursday, one submitted by Commissioner Nancy Schulz and the other by Commissioner Tim Fleming.

Property taxes

Fleming proposed making significant departmental cuts to the budget in order to keep the millage rate at the current 10.91 mills, while accounting for an approximately 8 percent decline in the tax digest. That would create a balanced budget of $44,248,176, a decrease of more than $2 million from fiscal year 2011's budget of $46,307,274.

Chairman Kathy Morgan has proposed adopting the rollback rate of 11.727 to generate an additional $1.78 million in revenue, for a budget of $46,027,905.

Schulz took a middle of the road approach, proposing a millage rate of 11.318 to create a budget of $45,138,040.

Fleming has stayed firm throughout the budget process on avoiding a tax increase. He said small businesses and industries will take the biggest hit if the millage rate is spiked. One thing that has not declined is the value of commercial property, he said. Fleming acknowledged his proposal would require personnel cuts but said the work session was not the appropriate venue to discuss specifics.

About 60 employees have been laid off during the last two budget cycles. Morgan has estimated that between 50 and 80 employees could be lost if the millage rate remains as is.

Schulz said her proposal would mean a modest tax increase of $46 a year for the owner of a $150,000 home, or around $300 a year for a $1 million business. She said employee cuts made last year were very disruptive to staff and county operations.

"I think if you go too far with cuts we cannot provide services that are necessary and we put our citizens at risk," she said.

Public Works

Proposed cuts to the public works department became the biggest bone of contention between commissioners. The current budget is $5,281,794. Fleming's proposal would reduce that by more than $1.5 million. He cut all capital outlay projects, plus an additional 12 percent, along with vehicle and equipment purchases he said could be funded through SPLOST.

Fleming said SPLOST and state and federal allocations could cover road improvement projects. He added that the chairman is in charge of public works and it would be at her discretion how to allocate the budget. If she decides to use some of the funds for capital outlay, Fleming said he wouldn't have a problem, so long as the budget is adhered to.

But Morgan said there can be no additional road improvements apart from what is funded through SPLOST if a drastic reduction to the public works budget is approved. Capital outlay funds budgeted include the county's required match for the DOT's LMIG program, which provides funding for resurfacing of local roads, she said. Further, the fund is used to make emergency repairs, such as when the culvert on Crowell Road collapsed due to flooding.

Morgan said public works does more than pave roads. Crews also spread calcium chloride and remove trees blocking roadways during snowstorms and other weather disasters, mow county rights of way, bury dead animals along the roadways, maintain unpaved roads and maintain the county's vehicles.

"They're the skeleton that works this county and keeps us running," she said.

Morgan said consideration needs to be given to how such a cut would impact the department.

"Anybody can do the math and balance the budget. We've balanced the budget up here 16 times just by doing the math," she said. But it's the impact to the county and citizens that has caused her to recommend the rollback millage rate, she said. Morgan added that when public works doesn't have the money to address resident complaints, "We'll forward those phone calls we get from citizens on to commissioners."

Fleming said some counties have seen savings by hiring contractors to do road work versus in-house crews, but Morgan countered that estimates obtained by the county indicate that would increase costs by about 30 percent.

Schulz budgeted the public works department at the same level as the current year, but said she's open to finding ways to save money and make the department more efficient. However, she cautioned that, "Roads are public safety as well. If our roads are not safe, our citizens are at risk."

Schulz added that the roads are the worst in west Newton, districts 2 and 3, but they are not designated on SPLOST. She said she wants to make sure children won't be put in jeopardy if there is no money to repair and improve roads in the budget, as school buses run on those roads. She suggested giving the chairman a few days to determine if the cuts could be managed.

Other departments

Neither Fleming nor Schulz want to cut law enforcement or fire. Schulz proposes keeping funding at last year's level, while Fleming added $500,000 for an increase in meals, food and personnel at the jail.

Fleming proposed an 8 percent cut to the Recreation Commission, while Schulz wants to keep current funding level. The Recreation Commission has added several new facilities over the last two years and officials there have said some may have to be closed if funding is reduced.

Both also proposed a reduction in library allocations and to animal control -- Fleming by 8 percent and Schulz by 10 percent.

Fleming is also proposing a 15 percent cut to Planning and Development.

Schulz's proposal includes a $24-per-year fee for residents using recycling centers, but she said she would be open to finding ways to eliminate that fee if possible. Fleming's proposal does not include the fee.

Meanwhile, Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he wants an additional $100,000 not currently included in any budget proposal to buy land to bury indigent citizens. Henderson said the $55,000 allocated in SPLOST will not be enough. He also wants $200,000 for a parking Walker's Bend and a bus to transport Recreation Commission All-Star teams to games.

Consensus

Commissioner Mort Ewing was ready to get a consensus Thursday night, but others weren't ready.

Ewing said he supports Fleming's plan as it is the only budget proposal that does not include a tax increase. Commissioner Lanier Sims indicated he would prefer not to have a millage increase, but he is concerned about the reduction to public works. He also proposed transferring a 10 percent savings Schulz believes can be achieved through energy efficient practices in county buildings to the recreation department to address Fleming's cuts there.

Sims and Schulz wanted more information on the public works proposal.

"To make a $1.5 million decision to cut a department on one hour's notice I think is foolish," he said.

Ewing said SPLOST will bring in the first year around $3.5 million that would be paid for out of the general budget, including public works projects. He said that can be considered a revenue increase.

Even if a consensus is reached Monday, final approval will not come before July 1, as the budget must be advertised for 14 days prior to approval, said Administrative Officer John Middleton. The earliest the budget could be approved is July 6.