COVINGTON — Chairman Keith Ellis is looking for new ways for the county to save money and generate revenue, and he’s applying the philosophy that “little things achieved are better than big things planned.”
Noting that balancing the budget was a tough four-month process, Ellis said he’s “trying to figure out what we can do not to have to fight this battle next year.”
Ellis said he’ll implement some of his cost-saving ideas in the three departments the chairman supervises — roads and bridges, fleet and engineering — with the hopes that they’ll be successful enough to eventually bring all departments on board. Ellis briefed the board on his plans during chairman’s comments at the Aug. 6 commission meeting and went more in-depth during a follow-up interview.
Ellis wants to try zero-based budgeting in those departments, where, instead of using last years’ budget as a starting point, “we would start at zero and justify every dime.” He also wants to try “dashboard accounting,” where department heads would be able to check periodically to see how they’re doing budget-wise. He said he’d like to have at least one work session a month for department heads to come and update commissioners on their budgets and whether they’re on target.
“To try to be more fiscally responsible, we’ve got to have reporting more regularly,” he said.
Ellis said energy audits will be done on all county facilities with the ultimate goal of reducing energy consumption by 5 percent. The county has received proposals from Southface Institute and Electric Cities of Georgia on cost estimates for the audits. Ellis said he is personally able to perform audits on smaller facilities, and has already done one on the Almon Community Center, resulting in conversion of a mercury thermometer to digital and air sealing the fireplace and a closet.
“We’re only going to do the upgrades that make the return on the investment,” he said.
In addition to saving money, Ellis is hoping to improve customer service, starting with the departments supervised by the chairman. Georgia Piedmont Technical College will provide customer service training for those departments in September at its Newton campus at a cost of about $600. It will be funded through training dollars available in the public works budget, Ellis said. GPTC has provided the training to employees with Rockdale and DeKalb counties. Training will focus on face-to-face communication and managing the difficult customer.
“All three of those departments are service-based departments,” he said.
Ellis said plans are also in the works to make better use of Gaither Plantation, which cost the county $27,000 out of the general fund last fiscal year. Ellis said his goal is to not lose money on the plantation going forward.
“We are entertaining any option, even public-private (partnerships) to achieve those goals to be fiscally responsible,” he said.
Ellis said there are signs the economy is improving, with foreclosures and unemployment down, the housing market improving and Baxter on the way. Ellis and Mayor Ronnie Johnston took part in the Aug. 2 visit with five representatives from the Department of Economic Development and Electric Cities of Georgia. The visit was coordinated by the Chamber of Commerce’s Office of Economic Development.
Vice President for Economic Development Courtney Bernardi said the meeting was focused on what makes Newton County unique from Georiga’s other counties. The visit included a tour of the Office of Economic Development, The Center and Newton County College and Career Academy and presentations on tourism and the 2050 Plan.
“They were also able to speak with the chairman and mayor regarding plans for the future and get a better understanding for Newton County as a whole and why our story is such a great one that they will certainly share to prospects looking to locate in Georgia,” Bernardi said.
Ellis said economic development is important because it will take the tax burden off individual taxpayers.
Finally, Ellis said a map of road projects and their estimated completion date will be published and accessible to the public soon. First, prioritization of projects on the county’s 780 miles of roads and 55 major bridges and culverts has to be completed, he said. Ellis said the goal is to create a priority list that can be referenced by future boards.