01 June 2018

The Newton County Budget Situation: A Guest Column by Larry McSwain

Your Source for the REAL Story

*Ed. note: An integral part of the #NewtonCounty12, Larry McSwain is a longtime taxpayer advocate & activist who has a keen understanding of the inner workings of Newton Co. governance & its funding. It is the sincere privilege of The Chronicles to be able to publish his thoughts here in this space. As always, thanks so much for reading! - MBM 

Proposed County Budget Requires a Property Tax Hike

After reading about Newton County’s FY 2019 budget in the local newspapers and reviewing the actual budget document posted on the county's web site, a few observations are in order.  First, approving a 10% budget jump that requires $6 million in new taxpayer funding and an increase in property taxes is not a responsible decision by the Board of Commissioners (BOC). That is especially true after many county residents just experienced big increases in the appraised value of their property along with a projection of higher property taxes.

A significant portion of the budget increase ($3.6 million) is for pay raises for county employees and for additional public safety positions. County employees have been underpaid for years so a "market adjustment" in salaries is justified.  However, they may need to be spread over multiple years, and not all given in FY 2019.  

The biggest budget concern is the 15 additional positions being proposed for the Sheriff’s Department and Jail Operations, and 11 for the Fire Services Department. Currently, there are 38 vacant positions in the Sheriff's Department and jail, and 20 in the Fire Services Department.  It is illogical to fund additional positions when those already in place are not being filled. The Sheriff and Fire Chief should fill their existing vacant slots, and then evaluate their needs with a full staff on board. 

Newton County’s population increased from 99,958 in 2010 to 108,078 in 2017 (8%). During that same period, the county’s spending increased by 7%. On the other hand, expenditures by the Sheriff’s Department went up by 24%, Jail Operations by 14% and Fire Services by 28% according to data from the County Finance Department.  A lot of factors are involved in determining public safety needs, but it is worrisome that our expenses are increasing at a much greater rate than our population.

Some will say that the crime rate is up and therefore more deputies are needed to deter criminal activity. The Sheriff reports crime statistics for Newton County each year to the FBI. That information warrants study to determine if our increase in spending is in response to a rise in crime. As for the Fire Services Department, their reported workload measures contained in their budget request have not increased since FY 2016, yet their request for funds is up 27% over last year.

Unfortunately, the Sheriff continues to spend an unreasonable amount for Tommy Craig’s legal services instead of using the county attorney. The Sheriff is again asking for a large legal budget in FY 2019- $170,000 for the Sheriff's Department and $200,000 for Jail Operations. As reported before, the Sheriff’s spending for legal services skyrocketed after hiring Craig. The BOC needs to have the political courage to cut that wasteful spending.

To avoid a tax increase, the BOC must trim about $2.3 million from the proposed budget of $66 million, or find additional revenue.  A property tax hike can be avoided if the BOC members themselves closely examine each department’s request. Ultimately, they are the ones that are accountable to taxpayers.  Citizens need to contact the BOC to encourage them to cut the budget or we will face another tax hike.

Submitted by
Larry McSwain

Covington Georgia