COVINGTON — County commissioners continued to mull over how to lower the property taxes for citizens while providing the same quality of services and keeping employees happy.
The board reached a consensus Monday during a budget meeting that the five furlough days needed to be restored to the employees while computer software updates and security systems are still being considered.
Chairman Keith Ellis said he would like to lower the millage rate from the current 11.54 to 10.99 mills, which would generate about $21.7 million in revenue. He was a proponent of dipping into the reserve funds in order to balance the budget.
County Manager John Middleton did not respond by presstime Tuesday when asked via email the amount currently in the reserve fund.
While Commissioner John Douglas agreed to use the reserves if needed, Commissioners Nancy Schulz, Levie Maddox and Lanier Sims said they wouldn’t support it.
“I’m not looking to tap into reserves. I don’t think it’s something that we’ve ever been advised to do and we’re already operating on tight ship,” Schulz said. “Once you use the reserve funds, it’s a slippery slope.”
Douglas compared the reserve funds to Christmas decorations.
“It’s all sparkly and pretty and we only look at them once a year to pat ourselves on the back and say how good it is, then we put them away,” Douglas said. “What good is the reserve if we never use it?”
The county also discussed instead of lowering the millage rate to 10.99, decreasing it to 11.225 mills, which would generate $22.2 million in revenue. The 11.225 rate would bring in about $500,000 more than the 10.99 rate.
Middleton said the 11.225 millage rate was the finance team’s starting point when preparing the budget.
“We talked to some department heads and made some judgment calls in order to make some reasonable assumptions for the numbers,” Middleton said Monday. “There isn’t a significant change from this year’s budget. It would also allow for the security system upgrades for the administration building.”
County commissioners are considering putting metal detectors in the administration building for extra security measures when the new gun law comes into effect July 1. However, the county also wants to provide bonuses for employees through the timber cruise revenue generated.
“I suggest that we return that money back to our employees. It may not be a raise but it could be a nice end of the year bonus,” Ellis said.
Commissioner J.C. Henderson said the county is only as good as its employees and asked that the other commissioners consider giving raises. Maddox agreed and said the employees are their biggest asset.
“Every employee is watching us. We’re looking to invest in them and my major concern is in public safety,” Maddox said. “I don’t think we have enough deputies on patrol or firefighters. There are needs in both departments, and we need to find a way to support them somehow.”
Visitation clerk Susan Gray from the Newton County Sheriff’s Office spoke out about the high turnover rate at the detention center.
“I love the people I work with and I’m very close with them. I’ve seen when they’re down and happy,” Gray said. “I’ve seen them work double shifts because we’re so shorthanded and we’re not being paid enough. I’ve seen people leave because there’s nothing to retire on. If they’re not happy, then what kind of job are they doing?”
Resident Larry McSwain said if the county doesn’t take care of the employees then trying to improve the county services is worthless.
Commissioners will try to reach a consensus on the millage rate by it’s final budget work session meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday.