Newton BOC fails to reach consensus on millage rate

COVINGTON — The Newton County Board of Commissioners couldn’t come to a consensus this week on a millage rate, thereby delaying the budget process.

Chairman Keith Ellis expressed his disappointment at the third budget work session Monday when it was clear the commissioners were unsure whether to approve a 10.99, 11.1 or a 11.225 millage rate, all of which are less than the current 11.54 millage rate.

“We’re farther apart than I thought. I thought we could come to a consensus. But we have to crawl before we walk,” Ellis said. “We’re trying to give employees back their (furlough) days, approve computer upgrades and also install security for both county buildings. I would like to fulfill all the departments’ wishes, but I’m concerned about the budget schedule.

“We’re almost back at the drawing board, and it’s a little disappointing,” he said.

If the county approves a 10.99 millage rate, about $1.1 million would return to the taxpayers in a tax cut and it would also allow the new security system be installed at the Administration Building and Historic Courthouse through a lease program.

Commissioners questioned whether or not a security system should be installed at both buildings for the cost of about $200,000. Sheriff Ezell Brown said in light of recent events around the state and country, the county would be foolish to not ensure safety at all the buildings.

“We have meetings here that can be contentious. I strongly believe in prevention and that we act instead of react,” Brown said.

Ellis noted that if the county cuts 0.004 percent across the board in all departments, the county can operate on a millage rate of 10.99. Brown said that while the percentage reductions are equal, it’s not fair.

“The Sheriff’s Office will take 50 percent of that cut,” said Brown, whose department represents about 50 percent of the county’s budget. “When you’re cutting straight across the board, you’re taking more from us than any other department.”

Commissioner Levie Maddox said that while he’s in favor of returning the taxpayers money by reducing the millage rate, he still wants to improve public safety services.

“I agree with the sheriff that we should outfit the admin building and the Historic Courthouse. I certainly don’t want to get us in a position where we’re on the Channel 5 news,” Maddox said. “We need funding to put up those security systems and provide protection and security for the citizens.”

Maddox said within the last six to 12 months, the Newton County Sheriff’s Office lost 41 employees, which cost the county about $5 million. The call volume the NCSO received in 2013 was more than 69,000. He suggested the county consider Brown’s request for 15 employees in order to better serve the citizens.

Commissioner John Douglas continued to push for a 10.66 millage rate that would mean dipping into the county’s reserves of $7 million in order to balance the budget, but Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she would not vote in favor of a millage rate that would cause the county to use the reserves.

“We know the wants and needs, but we have to balance the budget and make some tough choices,” Schulz said.

Commissioner Lanier Sims said the security for both buildings along with adding personnel to NCSO are the “must haves” to be included in the budget.

“Seems right now the feel of the board are those needs, but we don’t know what millage rate comes up when we factor in those needs,” Sims said.

While the final budget work session was Monday, the commissioners are scheduling a special meeting to be held on June 26 with hopes of reaching a consensus on the millage rate.