COVINGTON -- County Manager John Middleton told commissioners at a budget work session Monday night that if they don't adopt the rollback millage rate, major cuts, including a reduction in force, would be the only option to balance the budget.
Adopting the present millage rate of 10.91 mils would also mean employees will not get their current 10 unpaid holidays reduced to five. At a cost of more than $398,000, the county cannot afford to restore those unpaid holidays without the rollback rate of 11.59 mils, Middleton said.
The fiscal year 2014 budget is proposed at $45,940,886.
The rollback rate is what is needed to generate the same amount of tax revenue from one fiscal year to the next. Adopting the current millage rate would result in a loss of revenue shortfall of more than $1.25 million.
After meeting in public for nearly two hours, commissioners entered into executive session with the stated purpose of discussing possible personnel changes and consolidations that could improve the efficiency of operations.
Middleton presented commissioners with a budget based on the rollback rate. He also presented an impact analysis of cuts that would be required without the rollback rate. Those cuts would include a reduction to appropriations by $500,000; a reduction to county departments/programs/reduction in force totaling $357,337; and the elimination of the planned restoration of five paid holidays at $398,815.
Middleton said he felt inadequate to dictate policy on the non-rollback rate, adding that would require some very serious decisions and "those are some consequences that ya'll will want to think through very carefully, I think, before we just toss it out there."
Middleton said he did not have an exact number of employees that would be impacted by a potential reduction in force. He said that is the least preferred option.
Since 2009, "we have cut and cut and cut on budgets," Middleton said.
"At what point do services you're delivering negate the taxes you're collecting and for what purpose? If you're providing crummy services, why collect taxes?" he said.
The proposed budget, even without the rollback rate, includes revenues generated from a user fee for citizens to use the county recycling centers. The fee would be put in place around the first of 2014.
Commissioner J.C.Henderson said before approving that in the budget, the board should hold a public meeting on the topic, and he asked numerous times for board members to publicly state whether they support or oppose the measure.
Commissioner John Douglas said there is a problem with out-of-county citizens using the recycling centers and something has to be done to address that.
A committee will be looking at ways to improve operations and perhaps generate more revenue from the solid waste operations over the next few months.
Commissioner Lanier Sims, as in meetings past, stressed the need to find additional revenue sources besides property taxes.
"If we don't dig in our heels right now and start, we're going to be sitting here next year and the next year. We can sit here and hope home values go up, but that's a wishing game," he said.
Middleton noted that approximately $36 million in revenues is generated by property and other taxes.
Commissioners acknowledged actions of past boards could have created mistrust among the public.
Douglas said from about 2000 to 2008 the county was in good financial shape but despite increasing property values, the millage was not reduced. Now, when property values are low or flat and, he said, about a third are going up, "now we want to say we need to keep the same amount of money."
Middleton confirmed the board during those years did not adopt the rollback rate and adopted a higher rate than was needed to maintain the same level of revenues.
"The public is going to have a hard time trusting us to say we will change that pattern because for so many years it never happened," Schulz said.
She also said the board in the future has to consider not increasing the burden on government by approving construction funds in SPLOST for facilities that require maintenance and upkeep.
Sims also noted that a previous board approved a $5 million expansion to the landfill, and only allocated $500,000 in SPLOST funds to pay for it, obligating future boards to come up with $4.5 million in debt service payments.
In response to a question from Schulz, Middleton said the county's commitments to Baxter International, Stanton Springs and Bear Creek Reservoir would not impact this budget.
Henderson continued to push his request for $40,000 to be appropriated to Nelson Heights, Washington Street Community Center and the New Leaf Center in Walker's Bend -- a new financial and workforce development program -- and $6,0000 to the Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter. Funding for New Leaf and the homeless shelter was not included in the proposed budget, and funding for Washington Street and Nelson Heights is recommended at $32,000 each. Henderson expressed displeasure that the requested funding was not included in the proposed budget.
"I took a host of budget requests into account," Middleton responded. "I certainly wasn't shy about asking for revenue, but I haven't seen a whole lot come back across the table."
Chairman Keith Ellis said the county is asking for funds for New Leaf from the federal government.
Schulz invited the public to come to a fireside chat she is hosting at 7 p.m. Thursday at Almon Community Center at 65 Mt Tabor Road. The budget will be discussed.