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TRENTON, Ga. — The Dade County Commissioners plan to adopt a budget next week. They just need to account for a $730,000 deficit.

The commissioners held a hearing on the Fiscal Year 2019 budget Thursday night. Overall, the proposal calls for $10.6 million in spending, an 8 percent increase from last year. But they expect revenue to remain relatively flat, giving them no leeway for added expenses.

County Executive Ted Rumley said after the meeting that he and the other commissioners will make cuts, but he declined to say what county services are on the chopping block, only telling the Times Free Press, "There are a lot of things." If they can't cut the budget enough, the commissioners may have to hold uncomfortable tax increase meetings.

Rumley sat through one of those four years ago. It lasted hours in a packed administrative office. Residents shouted at the commissioners, vowed to vote them all out of office. In the end, no commissioner would even make a motion to vote on the proposed increase, and they returned to the offices the next day to gut the budget.

"I don't foresee a millage rate increase," Rumley said Thursday. "I think we can do enough cutting. It's going to be hard."

The commissioners do face a challenge with the property tax rate, though: They don't know how much property values are going to be worth this year. They will not receive the tax digest, which shows the combined values of all the county's property, until the end of the month. In theory, it should not matter.

The commissioners will figure out how much local revenue they will need for the budget, then adjust the tax rate once they figure out the values. But property assessments impact different people's property differently, meaning some people would be more affected than others if the commissioners need a slight increase in the tax rate — if, for example, the overall value of the properties have gone down.

The biggest increase in this year's budget? Insurance, which Chief Financial Officer Don Townsend expects will cost $1.3 million, a 31 percent increase from last year. Without going into specifics, he said a number of employees had extraordinary medical bills last year. Blue Cross Blue Shield is now charging the local government more.

The next biggest increase for the county comes from the sheriff's office, which is budgeted right now for a $268,000 bump. Besides insurance, the most significant change for spending comes from four new positions: two at the jail and two school resource officers.

The county is doubling the number of officers dedicated to the schools. Last year, one officer rotated between the high school and middle school, and a second officer rotated between the county's two elementary schools. Now, the county will have one officer dedicated to each campus. Sheriff Ray Cross said the Dade County Board of Education is splitting the cost for these officers.

"That's helped us out tremendously," he said. "We're very appreciative of the school board and the superintendent."

The county hopes locked up inmates will bring in more revenue. Specifically, inmates from Chattooga County, which pushes some defendants up here because its own jail is at capacity. Chattooga County pays other jails to house its inmates.

When Cross took office in 2013, he said Dade County's 110-bed jail only had 30 inmates. Now, it is consistently around 80 inmates. Some of the increase is the result of his own department. But of the 80 inmates, about 25 come from Chattooga County.

For the current fiscal year, which Dade County completes at the end of this month, the county has brought in about $94,000 from inmate housing. It has budgeted an income of $200,000 next year. Townsend said he hopes adding the extra jail officers helps them staff more outside inmates.

There is one other significant increase in the current budget: About $213,000 for the county road department, which represents a 23 percent increase from the current fiscal year. Besides increases for insurance, the most significant expense is about $135,000 budgeted for a new Bush Axe machine, which is used to clear vegetation alongside roadways. The previous one stopped working last year, Townsend said.

"They're critical," Rumley told the Times Free Press. "We need those things running throughout the year."

The commissioners had an answer for added road expenses: A Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which would have added a 1-percent burden at the cash registers. The money would have been earmarked for transportation projects, like road improvements. But voters rejected the measure twice, first in November and then again last month.

"We could have bought that out of T-SPLOST," Townsend said of the Bush Ax. "But T-SPLOST failed. We need a new place to fund these things."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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