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County discusses budget process, lowering millage rate

COVINGTON – Changing the budget process and lowering the millage rate stayed at the top of priority list during the Newton County Board of Commissioners strategic planning session Monday with Northeast Georgia Regional Commission Executive Director Jim Dove on Monday.

The meeting marked the fourth planning session in which the board tried to narrow down how and when they can achieve these goals.

Following up on the October planning session discussion about changing the budgeting process, County Manager John Middleton said he’d be meeting with the finance director, Michelle Kelly, and newly named assistant county manager, Tom Garrett, to review a two-year budget approach.

Middleton also suggested forming committees made of two commissioners and a department head to meet with himself, Garrett and Kelly in order to decrease the number of budgetary meetings and to review the departments’ budgets more in depth.

“I’ve never been a fan of budget day that takes from 9 a.m. until late afternoon because it’s not effective,” Middleton said. “With a committee approach, we can get that involvement on the department level and more interaction with the board moving forward.”

Middleton noted public budget meetings would continue but that is where the decisions and discussions from the committee meetings on the budget would be take place. The committee approach would create more involvement between the commissioners and departments, he said.

Commissioners Lanier Sims said he’s looking forward to a two-year budget and moving toward a committee approach in order to streamline the process.

Agreeing with Sims, Commissioner Levie Maddox said the department heads will be able to give the board a new perspective in the budget process.

Commissioner John Douglas expressed uneasiness about moving from a one-year to a two-year budget.

“I’m thinking worst-case scenario,” Douglas said. “What if the budget kills us in the second year with overspending?”

Middleton said the board will be given an outline of the budgeting process during the meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

Middleton also gave an update about the bid out for a grant writer, a position the county budgeted $50,000 for last year. He said he would review the applicants with Sims, who has been pushing for a grant writer.

When discussing the need to uphold the promise of lowering the millage rate by 2015, Commissioner Nancy Schulz said the board needs to look at ways to generate revenue instead of making budgetary cuts.

“We’re a service industry, we’ve cut as far as we can. One way to stimulate revenue is to bring more volume to the table. Grow our economy,” Schulz said. “Whether it’s through industrial or commercial growth, one way we can make an impact is to have strong infrastructure in place. We have the 2050 plan. We have the components that will draw business into Newton County then that can bring the millage rate down for all of us.”

Schulz also brought up discussion on solid waste management asking to analyze the money generated from the landfill and recycling centers.

Middleton said the landfill is holding its own financially, but is generating the same amount of revenue as last year.

“The goal is to receive $400,000 from the landfill, but we haven’t received that,” Middleton said.

Maddox and Sims agreed to sit down with County Attorney Tommy Craig in order to analyze the costs situation in the solid waste management department.

As another way to save the county money, Schulz brought up the topic of appropriations and the need to set expectations for boards who receive taxpayer funds.

“It’s not just about the money spent, but the outcome and what we’re receiving for what we’re spending,” Schulz said.

Sims said the commissioners need to develop better relationships and have more interaction with the boards who receive appropriations.

“Sometimes the only time we see them is when they’re asking for a check,” Sims said.

Commissioners also gave their thoughts on the succession planning already put in motion for when Middleton retires. Garrett began his new position as assistant county manager on Monday after the board voted 4-1 last week for him to learn under Middleton.

“We made a great decision in selecting Tom. I certainly would’ve liked to give more notice, but in my mind, Tom needed to be part of the budget process this year in overlay with John because next year the budget will be Tom’s baby,” Douglas said.