County commissioners reached a unanimous consensus to keep the millage rate at 10.91 during a work session Monday evening.
The board gave informal approval to a proposal by Chairman Kathy Morgan for a budget of $44,248,176. Morgan said after the meeting that she hopes to keep layoffs of county employees to fewer than 20.
Commissioner Tim Fleming had previously presented a budget proposal calling for a 10.91 millage, with a 30 percent cut to the public works department. Morgan's budget reduces the impact to public works to about 18 percent. Morgan said she attempted to spread cuts equitably versus penalizing one department.
Fleming said he would support Morgan's proposal because it includes a majority of his proposals. Both he and Commissioner Mort Ewing said the budget accomplishes what they've intended all along: Keeping the millage rate at its current level.
Though Commissioner Nancy Schulz favored the rollback rate proposal, she said she too supported the chairman's proposal because it distributes cuts more equally throughout the county. Schulz said the new budget will "leave no room for error" for department heads to go over and that services will be cut and "we will all share in that burden."
Morgan said the county will implement a volunteer workforce plan in the coming months in certain departments in order to keep operations running as smoothly as possible. She added that she is happy with a budget that does not increase the tax burden for citizens.
"I am so excited because what happened here was the commissioners worked together as a team," she said.
The public works budget will be reduced by more than $950,000, versus the $1.5 million reduction Fleming had proposed. The chairman and commissioners Schulz and Lanier Sims had expressed concern that a 30 percent reduction could cripple the department. Morgan's proposal will provide a little extra money, but there are no funds available for road improvements, she said. There is less than $200,000 to purchase gravel and asphalt to fill potholes and some matching funds required to participate in the DOT's local road resurfacing program.
The Sheriff's Office will be funded at last year's level on the law enforcement side, while the jail will receive a $516,000 increase to hire four more employees and to account for a rise in food and medical care costs. The sheriff's budget totals $18,035,543.
The Recreation Commission will be cut $100,000 for a total budget of just over $1.7 million. The department received less impact than others because it has added several new facilities.
The library was cut $200,000, with a total allocation of $916,452 for both branches, about $600,000 less than what is needed, according to Library Board Chair Lois Upham.
Residents will not pay fees to use recycling centers as had been previously considered and no other service fees are included in the budget.
The budget and millage will need to be advertised for 14 days and two public hearings held before final approval, which will come in mid-July.
Though Monday's meeting was not a public hearing the boardroom was packed, and loud applause followed remarks by commissioners who spoke against a millage increase. Pat Buchanan is convinced it was the community presence that made the difference.
"When people show up in force, the government works for them. When we don't show up in force, we work for the government," he said.
But Brian Todd said he's disappointed with the lack of courage to tell the truth exhibited by commissioners. He said county services and infrastructure will suffer.
"It's emblematic of what's going on across the country. So many politicians run on a platform of getting something for nothing -- I can cut your taxes and you won't suffer. It's hard to get elected saying we need to raise everybody's taxes," Todd said, adding that the talk about the negative impact on businesses from a millage increase didn't take into account that businesses need infrastructure to operate.
The Newton County Democratic Party, of which Todd is a member and his wife, Sara, is chair, issued a statement calling the decision by some commissioners not to consider a millage increase "penny-wise and pound-foolish."
"It shows a lack of vision and forethought on their part. These dire cuts will send Newton County into a downward spiral of a decreased quality of life that will only exacerbate our difficulty in attracting industry and other businesses to the county," the statement said.
Meanwhile, the Newton County Republican Party praised Republican Commissioners Tim Fleming and Mort Ewing for their "leadership on presenting and supporting a balanced budget that did not raise taxes on the taxpayers of this county. Ultimately it was the leadership and the steadfast commitment by the Republican County Commissioners that led the board not to raise taxes. The party thanks all of the citizens who voiced their opposition to a tax increase."
The statement was issued by Chair Delia Fleming, mother of Commissioner Tim Fleming, on behalf of the party.