Growth slowing to crawl

Columbia County officials say the area's years of exorbitant growth have come to a near halt.

 

Officials are predicting just 1.5 percent growth next fiscal year in the county's tax digest.

"We're used to getting anywhere from an 8 to 14 percent increase," county Finance Director Leanne DeLoach said. "This is the lowest it's been since I've been here."

The tax digest is determined using the reassessed value of property, new home construction and new businesses.

"Columbia County saw such a tremendous growth every year because home values were going up in our county and new businesses were coming here," Deputy Administrator Scott Johnson said. "Subdivisions were popping up all over the place, which was adding to the digest."

All that has slowed in the wake of the recession and a collapsed housing market, he said.

To prepare for the stalled growth, county officials are preparing a new budget for fiscal 2009-10 with just a 0.3 percent increase. Commissioners likely will vote on the budget in June.

The proposed budget, about $55 million, will be similar to the current one. To accomplish that, Mr. Johnson said, county leaders have avoided filling vacant positions, re-examined service contracts, streamlined operations and cut capital expenses.

"We asked our employees to do more with less," he said. "We asked them to cut the capital, like doing without a new desk or a new computer. We've asked our employees to be diligent."

There were only four or five new hiring requests from department heads, Ms. DeLoach said.

"Any vacancies we have we're really scrutinizing and sometimes we're not filling," she said.

The budget does include a 4 percent merit raise.

"Our first stab at the budget came in low enough for us to go back and calculate in a merit raise, and that balanced the budget," Mr. Johnson said. "But I don't know that it will remain in there. It's a long time between now and June."

Despite the slowdown, it's still growth, he said.

"Other communities, not only has the tax digest growth slowed, but it's been reduced," he said. "While we're fortunate to have some increase in our digest, there are some communities that have double-digit reductions."

Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115, or donnie.fetter@augustachronicle.com.