Employee raises, lower millage rate pass with county budget

COVINGTON — County Commissioner John Douglas made one last attempt to set a lower millage rate for the upcoming fiscal year, but in the end, the Newton County Commission approved a millage rate of 11.225.

Immediately following a public hearing Thursday night, the BOC held a special called meeting to approve the millage rate and adopt the fiscal year 2015 budget.

Assistant County Manager Tom Garrett outlined the proposed millage rate and budget for the upcoming year, pointing out that the gross tax digest is estimated at $2.3 billion and the net maintenance and operations digest at $1.97 billion.

“The total county taxes levied will be $22,177,429,” Garrett reported.

This is the first year since 2009 that the tax digest as increased over the previous year. According to the public notice published by the BOC, the net M&O digest was $2.84 billion in 2009, which was down about 3.67 percent from 2008. The digest continued to slide each year, bottoming out in 2013 with a net M&O digest of $1.84 billion.

Also during those years, the amount of taxes levied deceased until this year when the net taxes increased by $838,048, or by 3.93 percent.

The 2015 county budget is based on a millage rate of 11.225, down from the previous year’s millage rate of 11.54. The hospital indigent fund and emergency medical services millage rates remain at 1.2 and .451, respectively. Newton County fire services likewise will continue to receive .792 mills.

The total county M&O budget is projected to be $47,723,897, with 32 percent of that allocated toward the general fund; 11 percent for the court system; 42 percent for law enforcement; and 13.2 percent for appropriations.

With the 11.225 millage rate, the county plans to give 2 percent raises to employees hired before 2008 and 1 percent raises for employees hired between 2009 and 2011. Five furlough days are also reinstated.

“We are at the end of the long process we call the budget,” said Chairman Keith Ellis. “There are no bills, nothing you raise your hands for that is more important than this.”

Ellis went on to thank the county staff for their efforts on the budget and expressed appreciation for the commissioners reaching a consensus, even through disagreements.

The budget process was delayed slightly when commissioners couldn’t reach a consensus on a millage rate in June. Commissioner Douglas advocated for a 10.66 millage rate that would have meant dipping into the county’s reserves of $7 million in order to balance the budget. Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she would not vote in favor of a millage rate that would cause the county to use the reserves.

Ellis said he would be in favor of a 10.99 millage rate, but in the end, the commission agreed to approve 11.225 rate, which is .315 lower than the previous year.

Even with the consensus reached, commissioners’ comments during public meetings this week reflected continued differences of opinions on the budget.

J.C. Henderson said during the BOC regular meeting Tuesday that he was “pleased with the budget,” particularly since it provided a 2 percent raise for employees and reinstated furlough days.

“We’re only as good as the services we provide our citizens, and if our employees feel they are treated good, they will enjoy that job. If they don’t, then they talk about us,” Henderson said.

Schulz said at that same meeting she was happy that the BOC was able to reduce the millage rate, but said the strategic planning process used this year needs to continue into the future.

“I hope we will continue strategic planning to continue to make more progress,” she said. “In that, we have to make some hard decisions how to spend the money.”

Douglas said he was likewise pleased that county employees were able to receive a raise, but said he was not satisfied with the overall budget.

“I appreciate all the comments about giving our employees a raise, I haven’t heard anything said tonight about the people who pay the taxes,” he said Tuesday. “This budget still reflects a 5 percent tax increase – even with a lower millage rate. It seems the government never gets enough money. … We need to think more about the people who have to give up the money.”

True to his word, Douglas voted Thursday against both the millage rate and the county budget.

After Schulz made a motion seconded by Commissioner Levie Maddox to adopt the millage rate, Douglas made a substitute motion to adopt a millage rate of 10.65 mills. The substitute motion died for lack of a second, and the 11.225 rate was adopted 4-1.

Likewise with the vote on the fiscal year 2015 budget. After the motion was made by Maddox and seconded by Henderson to approve the resolution setting the budget, Douglas encouraged the public to read the public notice of property tax to see that it reflects an $838,048 tax increase due to an increase in the tax digest.

The budget resolution passed 4-1, with Douglas voting against it as well.