Budget vote unanimous,
but millage may not be

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

All six members of the Henry County Board of Commissioners agree on what is in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

They don’t all agree on how to pay for it.

The board voted unanimously to approve a $134,672,557 general fund budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The action took place at a May 27 special called meeting; by law the budget had to be approved by the end of May.

Two budgets were prepared, and the one staff recommended was overseen by Chairman Tommy Smith. It differed slightly from the other offered budget in that it called for a 3-percent raise across the board for county employees instead of 2 percent, and it included $7,500 in additional funding for the Board of Assessors.

Interim county manager Cheri Hobson-Matthews presented the budget and it soon became apparent that the board had reached a consensus on approving it. Matthews pointed out that even a 5-percent reduction in the budget would likely result in an estimated 129 county employees being lost.

“There is nothing we can cut at this point,” she said. “There are a lot of needs in this county.”

When Matthews pointed out that the county’s population had reached about 210,000 people, Commissioner Bruce Holmes offered that he had heard the number was closer to 247,000. Both agreed that the actual total was somewhere in between and it was proof that the county’s growth was continuing.

The main sticking point between Smith and the rest of the board appears to be the millage rate, which will have to be voted on in the next couple of months.

Matthews stated that the budget presented by Smith should include a millage rollback of 70 percent, to 13.538. Smith said repeatedly that he would not vote for anything but a total millage rollback.

Commissioner Brian Preston pressed Smith on the issue, saying he was encouraged by the consensus being reached on the budget and he commended Smith on his work, but he was frustrated at Smith’s refusal to fund a budget that he recommended.

Smith said either budget that was presented would require taking money from the county’s fund balance. The board voted several weeks ago to keep fund balance at or above 25 percent of the budget on an annual basis, allowing for certain times of the year where it would fall below - an “ebb and flow,” as Preston put it.

Matthews and county finance director Fred Auletta pointed out how neither budget would allow a total rollback without falling below the 25-percent threshold because of about $5 million taken from fund balance during the past year for a number of needed equipment items such as vehicles for various departments.

Matthews said that with some key SPLOST-built capital projects coming online in the next year or two - several fire stations, a senior/rec center and a park - that must be staffed, she felt there was a need to be “proactive” when it came to the budget.

“The staff and I would be doing a disservice to support a full rollback now and then come back next year to say we can’t staff our new fire stations,” she said.

Commissioner Blake Prince said he also supported Smith’s budget but he was having a hard understanding exactly what the chairman wanted.

“On the one hand, the chairman made a campaign promise not to raise the millage,” said Prince. “On the other hand, he promised a 5-percent raise for county employees [something Smith said for the record at a board meeting this spring]. We can’t make these two meet.”

Prince said he has not heard from a single constituent or employee who thinks cutting services is a good idea. He added that the citizens voted yes to the items on the SPLOST referendum, and not funding them would be going directly against their wishes. “It’s not good governing, in my opinion.”

Preston hammered away at Smith several times, but the chairman did not budge from his position.

Preston called Smith’s proposed use of fund balance to complete the budget the equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck with no contingency in the case of something catastrophic. “Do you really want us to run that lean?” he asked.

“I will not vote for any increase in ad valorem property tax,” was Smith’s response.

“Then you should have come up with a budget based on our property tax,” Preston replied.

Preston offered that the 70-percent rollback is a reduction in taxes because property values have risen 10-15 percent, which he said was a good thing after several years of economic downturn.

But he stressed that the board was in the first phase of a two-part process, with the millage vote coming soon. He pointed out that he voted against the budget itself in 2012, his first year on the board, because it required a millage increase.

“You can’t vote for the budget and then vote against the funding of it because you are essentially hiding in the cellar hoping we will do the right thing and keep things going for the employees and for the county,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair to the citizens.”

Preston said Smith’s promises regarding employee pay raises and total millage rollback reminded him of “high school student council, where you promise free pizza every day and no homework. It doesn’t work, and that’s not what we ran for. It frustrates me.”

Prince noted how Smith’s proposed budget was $800,000 higher than the alternative one, when if he wanted a total millage rollback it would have made more sense to go $800,000 in the other direction.

“If you spend more money, you have to take in more money. Using fund balance is a one-shot deal. We can’t do it next year,” said Prince. “I’m a little confused on which direction the chairman wants to go.”

Millage hearings have not yet been scheduled. Last year the millage rate of 14.298, which was a partial rollback, was approved July 23 after several lengthy public hearings. The vote was 4-2, with Smith and Commissioner Gary Barham voting against.