After reading about Newton County’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget in the local newspapers and studying the actual budget documents on the county’s web site, a few observations are in order. First, it would be totally irresponsible for the Board of Commissioners to approve a $66 million budget that requires $6.2 million in new taxpayer funding and an increase in property taxes. That is especially true after many county residents just experienced big increases in the appraised value of their property, which means higher taxes are already on the way.
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, the raises may need to be spread over multiple years and not all given in fiscal year 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 18 in the Fire Services Department. Priority should be placed on filling the vacant slots before funding more positions. That is just logical.
Newton County’s population increased from 99,958 in 2010 to 108,078 in 2017 (8 percent). During that same period, the county’s total spending increased by 7 percent. On the other hand, spending by the Sheriff’s Department went up by 24 percent, jail operations by 14 percent and Fire Services by 28 percent, according to data from the county Finance Department. A lot of factors are involved in determining public safety needs, but it is troubling that our public safety costs are increasing at a much greater rate than our population.
Some believe the crime rate is up and, therefore, more deputies are needed to deter criminal activity. The crime statistics for Newton County are reported to the FBI each year, so those need to be studied to determine if the increase in spending is justified by increased crime. As for the Fire Services Department, their reported workload has not increased significantly since fiscal year 2016, yet their budget request is 27 percent greater than last year.
There are other excesses in the draft budget that need to be eliminated. The sheriff is asking for $370,000 in legal fees to pay Tommy Craig and for huge increases in equipment and uniform purchases. Fire Services requested a 20-fold increase in contract labor and triple the amount of equipment as last year. And, we continue to give $38,800 to the Nelson Heights Center each year.
To avoid a tax increase, the BOC must cut about $2.5 million from the proposed $66 million budget, or find additional revenue. Other spending plans are now under consideration that would not require a millage increase. Let’s ask the BOC to carefully evaluate each department’s request and develop a responsible budget that avoids a property tax increase.