Deficit points to tax increase

If the Augusta Commission's first briefing on next year's budget is any indication, the city is in for a dismal 2010.

 

The city faces a deficit of nearly $8.6 million, and City Administrator Fred Russell recommends a tax increase and closing the Augusta Municipal Golf Course.

Collections from a penny sales tax meant to offset property taxes are down, as are ad valorem taxes and state and superior court fines, Mr. Russell told commissioners at a called meeting Tuesday. The law enforcement budget is projected to come up about $5.9 million short, and Mr. Russell said he and Sheriff Ronnie Strength couldn't find any cuts to make.

That hole could be plugged with a 1.317 millage increase, which would add $46.10 to the tax bill on a $100,000 home and put the millage at 92 percent of the city's tax cap, the administrator said.

But that still wouldn't balance the budget. Among other things, Mr. Russell recommended raising bus fares and cutting services to make up a shortfall of nearly $1.8 million in Augusta Public Transit, cutting department appropriations by 15 percent to save $1.2 million and closing the golf course, known as "The Patch," to save $310,400.

"This is probably the toughest budget that we've had to put together in the eight years that I've been here," Mr. Russell said.

In perhaps the only good news he offered, Mr. Russell said his estimations were conservative and that some of the painful decisions could be put off until next summer, when revenues could turn out to be more than expected.

After the presentation, several officials complained that the city has no way to raise more money.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver suggested passing a resolution in support of the Georgia Municipal Association's efforts to persuade the Legislature to allow cities to collect more sales taxes. Mr. Russell said that with an extra half-penny tax per dollar spent, the city wouldn't be in this situation.

Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason also suggested dipping into the Utilities Department's enterprise funds, an idea Jerry Brigham and Jimmy Smith warned against.

"At some point we have to stop looking at just the homeowner to bail us out," Mr. Mason said. "We're not talking about raping and pillaging it."

According to a spreadsheet provided by Steve Little, the assistant director of finance and administration for the water department, it has $65.8 million in operating cash on hand, but it's off limits.

For starters, because of the old city government's penchant for raiding water revenues as it was sinking toward bankruptcy, bond covenants forbid dipping into proceeds to replenish the general fund or any other coffers, Mr. Little said. To do so would leave the city open to lawsuits because the agreement helps the city obtain a favorable bond rating and bond underwriting to fund the water system.

Also, the money is already targeted. Of the $65.8 million, $48.6 million is contractually obligated; $5 million is for Fort Gordon; $4 million is for a required cash reserve; and the remaining $8.2 million will go toward capital projects budgeted this year, according to the data.

An additional $40 million in needed projects still has to be funded, and utilities is already looking into stimulus funds and state loans, Mr. Little said.

If the city were to use up its water department funds, then have a major water main break or other unforeseen disaster, it would be in a crisis, he said.

Commissioner Joe Bowles reiterated Tuesday that the city golf course should be privatized. He wondered why the city government hasn't been furloughing or laying off employees as private companies are doing.

Mr. Bowles said the working budget shows how poorly the city has its priorities set, considering the largest shortfall is in law enforcement.

"Public safety and infrastructure should be the top priorities of this commission," he said.

Mr. Brigham called some parts of the budget "dead on arrival" and suggested getting input from the public on which services it would like to see cut first.

Mr. Russell said he expects a budget to be formally adopted in late November. "It's not going to be easy," Mr. Russell said. "It's always easier to do a budget when you have lots of money."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

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