COVINGTON -- Having not yet come to a consensus on how to reach a balanced budget for fiscal year 2014, commissioners asked County Manager John Middleton and the finance staff at a work session Monday night to bring back two budgets for them to consider at their next work session.
One budget will be based on the current millage rate of 10.91 mils and one on the rollback rate of 11.59 mils.
Commissioners have not yet committed to adoption of the rollback rate. Budget requests total more than $4.5 million in excess of expected revenues of $45,861,727. If the current millage rate remains, the county would face an additional $1.3 million shortfall. Adopting the rollback rate would keep tax revenues at the same level they were last year.
Commissioner J.C. Henderson noted that while everyone wants a balanced budget, there's no agreement on how to do that.
"At some point, and it's going to have to be soon, we're going to have to make the tough decision," he said. The current fiscal year ends June 30. Commissioners traditionally approve a budget and adopt a millage rate for the upcoming year at their meeting on the second Tuesday in June. The county can continue to operate on the current year budget until a new one is adopted if necessary.
The Sheriff's Office is requesting the bulk of the increase in the budget. The sheriff has requested an increase from $8,850,738 to $10,801,389 on the law enforcement side and from $9,091,315 to $11,053,109 for the correctional side of the operation. The increase request amounts to about 2 mils, according to Middleton.
The sheriff is requesting capital outlay totaling about $1.3 million, including purchase of 11 patrol vehicles, vehicles for the Criminal Investigations Division and CHAMPS program, an X-ray machine and a transport van for court, along with repairs to the kitchen and inmate showers at the detention center. Forty-five percent of the county budget goes to fund law enforcement.
Commissioners ultimately decided Middleton and the finance department have the working knowledge of the departments to decide where to make cuts, but they spent and hour and half discussing concerns and brainstorming on ways to generate more revenue.
The solid waste fund loses money each year, and county appropriations for the fiscal year 2014 budget would total $750,000. On top of that, a nearly $400,000 debt payment is due this upcoming fiscal year related to a new cell constructed at Newton County Landfill.
Total revenues of $2,922,037 is required to balance the solid waste budget. Landfill fees and revenue from recycled materials would cover about $2.17 million, requiring a general fund appropriation of $750,000. Several commissioners have said they want to examine ways to make solid waste a more efficient operation and find a way to generate more revenue.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she's been on the board since the county started making budget cuts in 2009 and "there's almost no room for any kind of changes on the expense side because we've done that over the last four years. We've cut and we've cut and we've cut. So what we have to do now is we really have to look at the revenue side and how we generate more revenue."
Commissioner Lanier Sims has proposed hiring a grant writer, which he said is working well for the city of Covington and the Sheriff's Office. Commissioner Levie Maddox said he'd like an additional $40,000 in funding to the Chamber of Commerce for economic development efforts. The county currently appropriates $120,500. Maddox recommended a funding increase annually.
Schulz said commissioners need to get a handle on legal fees, which she said have been inching up. Legal fees were budgeted at $415,500 this fiscal year and are budgeted at $447,000 for next fiscal year.
Commissioner John Douglas said that while it's not a major expense in the budget, he wants to see the wrecker service put out to bid like other services in the county.
Commissioner Henderson said at some point the commission may need to consider whether both a full-time chairman and county manager are needed.
All commissioners agreed it's imperative to restore five unpaid holidays to county employees, reducing their unpaid holidays from 10 to five.
Maddox recommended increasing funding for training of employees from $5,000 to $15,000, and resuming the annual employee picnic, which was previously held twice a year.
Those funds were cut in 2009 when layoffs began, Middleton said. "It's hard to lay 50 or 60 people off and then go have a picnic," Middleton said, adding that not expending those funds probably saved half a position.
Sims noted that the county is losing employees to better paying jobs where they can get more training. Commissioners agreed they want to move in the direction of providing more incentives for employees.
Noting that some county roads are crumbling, Schulz also stressed the need for a reasonable budget for the roads department.
The board's next budget work session is 7 p.m. Monday, June 3, in the Newton County Historic Courthouse at 1124 Clark St.