Commission can't hide truth anymore

Your city leaders are preparing to face perhaps the most difficult and delicate budget decisions Augusta has seen in years, if not decades.


At a time in which the private sector is struggling to pick itself up from what some are calling the "Great Recession," the Augusta government is staring at a potential $8.6 million deficit in its 2010 budget.

That's a lot of money to come up with in any economy, much less this one.

Not surprisingly, tax revenues are expected to be down. In addition, the city used $5.1 million in its rainy-day fund this past year to balance the budget.

In essence, the city was living beyond its means even before now.

That's not an option anymore.

Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason suggested this week looking at using monies from the Utilities Department enterprise funds -- but apparently didn't do his homework: The money is reportedly off-limits for general use, and has been allocated to other things anyway.

In short, there's no easy way out anymore.

Commissioner Joe Bowles wondered on Tuesday why the city hasn't taken the responsible step of cutting costs by looking at furloughs or layoffs. He noted, quite rightly, that most other units of government and private businesses have scaled back thusly on personnel costs.

As if to prove Bowles' point, the Georgia Department of Driver Services was closed Thursday for the first of four employee furlough days; the offices will also close Nov. 19, Dec. 18 and Jan. 28.

Augusta commissioners simply must marshal the courage to take similarly painful steps in order to avoid more property tax increases. City administrator Fred Russell is already calling for a 1.317 millage increase to shore up the expected $5.9 million hole in the law enforcement budget. That would add $46 in taxes on a $100,000 house.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver lamented the double whammy that occurs when the state pushes costs down to the municipal and county level -- but doesn't provide cities and counties with the flexibility needed to cover those costs, especially in local option sales taxes. He said such matters will be the No. 1 priority for the Georgia Municipal Association this coming year.

Copenhaver suggested, for instance, that local sales taxes be collected locally instead of going to Atlanta. When such a change was instituted in Alabama, he said, local tax receipts soared. Russell added his suspicions about state sales tax procedures when he noticed that several Georgia localities' sales tax revenues, as reported by the state, decreased by the same amount.

But the truth is, we can't expect an easy fix from Atlanta.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham said taking utility money for the general fund, even if it could be done, would be simply hiding a tax increase -- just, we might add, like raiding the savings account has been.

The truth is, the city has been living beyond its means, and that's not an option anymore.

It's time to stop hiding the truth and make the tough choices, commissioners.