TIFTON -- Tift County Commissioners passed a $19.9 million fiscal 2003-2004 budget and tentatively set a millage rate at Monday's special called meeting.

County Administrator Wayne Johnson told commissioners the budget was balanced at $19.9 million and includes a built-in $200,000 allotment for the County's contingency fund in this year's budget.

"That will be two times what has been put in reserves in the past three years," Johnson said. "We went from a negative reserve amount to $1.5 million."

Also in the budget, Johnson said, is $2 million for road construction and resurfacing, $1.5 million of which came as a result of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues.

Johnson said the budget addressed every issue of tax inequity raised by the City of Tifton except for the roads and law enforcement issues.

The general fund tax revenue is predicted to be $6.8 million, $220,000 less than last year. Tift County's Chief Tax Assessor, Teresa Lupo, handed Tax Commissioner Gene Goode, Johnson and commissioners copies of tentative millage rate calculations for 2003 just prior to the meeting. She said she worked over the weekend to complete the tax digest but still needs to put the finishing touches on the figures.

A tentative County-wide millage rate of 9.65 mills for this year is expected to be set by commissioners when the tax digest is completed. Last year's millage rate was 11.26 mills. Johnson said 3 percent of the County's anticipated rollback on this year's millage would come as a result of property re-evaluations.

Incremental pay raises were also approved in the budget, pay raises several commissioners said were a long time in coming for County employees. The salary revisions were recommended by which conducted a study of several counties comparable to Tift.

The first phase of the three-phase compensation plan will be a 3 percent across-the-board increase for Tift County's 400 employees. The increase will be retroactive to July 1, when the 2003-2004 fiscal year began.

The second phase of the plan, which will bring employees to a minimum market-level of pay, will be implemented Oct. 1. Human Resources Director Tracy St. Amant told commissioners she would meet with all County department heads to discuss the work of individual employees in the departments prior to implementing the second phase.

The third phase of the compensation plan will go into effect April 1, 2004, will bring pay levels for positions within the County to the market level.

The tentative costs to implement the three phases are $224,707, $591,177 and $615,257 respectively.

St. Amant said that each position and employee filling those positions within the County's work force will be evaluated and job descriptions, tenure, present salary and job performance will be considered. The result, she said, will be salary scales set with specific minimum starting salaries and maximum salaries for various positions -- things she said the County need not only to bring employees' pay up to par but to set guidelines for new hires.

"We will get better qualified people with less injuries because we can hire and train and keep people," Chairman Buddy Bryan said. "You either pay now or later in workmen's compensation, lost time and injuries."

"We can't continue to be a training school and lose good people to other contractors."

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