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Newton BOC continues strategic planning

Newton commissioners work toward reducing millage rate

COVINGTON — Commissioners are still trying to find ways to meet their goal of reducing the millage rate by 2015, and met for a third strategic planning session Monday evening.

Zero-based budgeting, moving from a one-year to two-year budget cycle, hiring a grant writer and incentivizing departments to cut this year’s spending another 3 percent were discussed.

While officials indicated support for zero-based budgeting, they said it may be too much to tackle in every department at one time. They agreed to start with a few departments that would serve as “guinea pigs.”

“I certainly don’t want to do the entire monster. I don’t think our staffing or time would allow that,” said Commissioner Levie Maddox.

Officials agreed true zero-based budgeting is difficult to accomplish because of mandates that leave little in discretionary spending for departments and complex budget structures of some departments that rely on a variety of funding sources.

Commissioner Lanier Sims has been pushing for a grant writer, and the board budgeted $50,000 in this year’s budget, though the position has not been filled. Sims recommended finding a firm for grant writing services.

Commissioners also discussed using a program similar to one used in Gwinnett County where citizens can get online and view a breakdown of where their tax dollars go based on their individual assessment. At a previous planning meeting, some commissioners said there’s public misunderstanding of tax bills and how much the county controls. The county does not set the millage rate for the school system for instance; that’s up to the Board of Education. Ellis noted that during the budget hearings, there was a graphic showing that just 22 cents of every $1 of taxes is tied to the county millage rate, but it’s a message he doesn’t believe sank in with the public.

Some commissioners said they’re still not sure if what they’ve discussed will amount to a millage rate reduction.

“At the end of the day we’ve got to answer to the citizens what is reducing the millage rate and did this whole strategic planning help us get to reducing the millage rate?” said Commissioner Lanier Sims.

Maddox said while the goals may add efficiencies and improve transparency, he’s not sure those measures will amount to $1.2 million in additional revenue, roughly the shortfall this past budget year that resulted in adoption of the rollback rate.

Commissioners also delved into ways to increase revenue and improve quality of life, such as attracting higher-end restaurants, and said that may require expanding liquor by the drink sales county-wide. Currently, in the unincorporated county, liquor by the drink sales are limited to the Salem and Almon overlays and Stanton Springs. Commissioner John Douglas said he wants it approved for the Brick Store overlay the night the overlay is approved. That process is expected to begin early next year and be completed in April. He said it’s the only way to get restaurants like Red Lobster or Olive Garden.

It’s also a matter of fairness for property owners, Sims said.

“Sooner rather than later we’ve really got to look at the whole county and liquor by the drink,” he said. “How can we tell a landowner over here he can’t do it and a landowner here inside this little circle he can?”

But Chairman Keith Ellis said having designated areas for by the drink sales, along with placement of water and sewer infrastructure, can push developers to areas designated for growth by the 2050 plan.

“That’s another one of those cans of worms — do we really want to go there at this point?” he said.

Officials are concerned Newton may not be the preferred relocation spot for Baxter International and other industry executives.

“Schools are No. 1 on the list,” of considerations for where to locate, said Douglas, adding that some executives are choosing Walton and Morgan counties because of the school systems there.

“They look at the graduation rates just like everybody else does,” Ellis agreed.

Ellis acknowledged that the local school system is an issue “but nobody wants to talk about it much.”

Maddox said a “premium developer” considering developing on Ga. Highway 11 changed his mind and went to Morgan County after learning that transferable development rights are still being considered in Newton. TDRs allow property owners to separate their development rights from properties designated as low-density areas and sell them to developers in areas designated for higher density. Once the development rights are sold, the low-density property is placed under a permanent conservation easement.

“I think if we don’t do something creative, and I don’t know what that is, soon, that whole wave is going to miss us and land in Morgan County,” Maddox said.

But Ellis said a lot of people support TDRs and while that may have lost the county one developer, it could be a draw for others.

Schulz said officials need to ask what is the quality of life executives with Baxter want. “We have to educate ourselves on, if we want those high-end jobs coming here, what are they expecting us to provide as a community in terms of quality of life, and it may be something different than what we have right now,” she said.

Douglas said that concern has to be balanced with protecting residents.

“We’re only going to get one chance to do this, particularly on the east side. We’ve only got one shot at it, and if we don’t get it right, the east side is going to suffer for X number of years,” he said.