Sweeping budget cuts that will end youth programs at several community centers and eliminate dozens of city jobs remain on the table after an effort to restore the funds failed Wednesday by a 5-2 Augusta Commission vote.
The measure, which needed six votes to pass and was opposed by commissioners Jerry Brigham and Joe Jackson, came at the end of a 2½-hour discussion between commissioners, City Administrator Fred Russell and several department heads about how the cuts will be made and where the additional funds might be found.
Russell said he would hold off on actually making the cuts at least until the Tuesday commission meeting, when three commissioners absent Wednesday might swing things in the other direction. Commissioner J.R. Hatney missed the meeting because he was out of town, while Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles and Commissioner Matt Aitken were absent because of work, Russell said.
The motion that failed, first made by Commissioner Corey Johnson, was to take an additional $1.5 million from the city’s reserve fund and an anticipated $1 million in new revenue Tax Assessor Alvino Ross said will arrive when his department implements technological upgrades, to cover the shortfall.
During the meeting, Russell revealed for the first time where he recommends eliminating 34 salaried positions this year under the existing approved budget.
The 34 positions include one each in the finance, animal control, Superior Court, State Court solicitor, Civil Court clerk and Richmond County Marshal’s offices; two from the tax commissioner; three apiece from information technology, the tax assessor’s office, clerk of Superior Court and Richmond County Correctional Institute; five from the city’s engineering department and nine from recreation, parks and facilities, according to a handout presented at the meeting.
The cuts are in addition to percentage reductions required across all departments that are based on department size. Engineering Director Abie Ladson, who will lose 16 positions if his department is required to cut $500,665, said it will leave engineering at 56 percent staffed and unable to function.
“I might put myself on the chopping block,” Ladson said.
Brigham said he voted against the measure because he “didn’t like the proposed tax increase.” Brigham chaired the meeting in the absence of Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who was attending a funeral, and Bowles.
The increase Brigham is referring to is growth in the tax digest Ross says will occur when his department implements technology called ITOS and performs a new aerial sweep of the county that will add numerous undeclared additions to properties, such as pools, to the assessor’s office pictometry database.
Brigham said he believes that when the digest grows, Augusta-Richmond County will have to lower the millage rate or else announce a tax increase. Ross said the changes are considered noninflationary “new discovery” and wouldn’t require a rollback.
Jackson said he wanted to take care of public safety departments and that those areas such as community centers that are slated to cut people and services can always be reopened later.
“I’m not being insensitive; it’s tough times,” Jackson said, suggesting the city explore implementation of stormwater fees that Ladson said will create an additional $8 million to $9 million in revenue.
Two commissioners, Wayne Guilfoyle and Grady Smith, who had previously voted for the total budget with planned cuts favored restoring the funds.
Guilfoyle was concerned about plans to end youth programs at several community centers, including the Blythe Center in his District 8, and questioned Recreation Director Tom Beck extensively about how he picked the cuts. Guilfoyle requested a list of revenue numbers, enrollment and use at all 16 of the city’s centers, not just the five targeted for reductions.