If history is any guide, Augusta Commission members won’t resort to a tax increase to fill an $8.5 million budget shortfall.
They’ll probably decide to balance the books with reserves – the “rainy day fund” – as they've done in the past. But without new revenue, problems such as unmowed rights of way and trash-strewn streets will again crop up.
The first public hearing on the draft $683.7 million spending plan is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday. City Administrator Fred Russell’s proposed budget is not yet balanced, a requirement under Georgia law, and he is looking to the commission for guidance about how to fill the gap.
The budget eliminates little but includes a few new service additions, areas where commissioners might look first to cut.
The projects include $300,000 for Mayor Deke Copenhaver’s Augusta Regional Collaboration Project, which is attempting to cultivate development downtown and in Harrisburg; $675,000 to complete a study of racial and gender disparities in Augusta’s awarding of contracts; and a handful of personnel additions for the court system, most of which agency heads say are required under state mandates.
Another option has support from some commissioners but not others: Outsource management of Augusta Municipal Golf Course, potentially shaving the shortfall if the commission could agree on a manager.
“Knowing their stance on things, they’re probably going to want to outsource the golf course,” said Commissioner Bill Lockett, who disagrees with more fiscally conservative colleagues who want to outsource the course.
Lockett favors including the disparity study, which would re-institute a system of racial and gender preference in the awarding of city contracts, but several other commissioners disagree.
A likely target is Russell’s proposed across-the-board $1,500 pay increase for all employees. While most city staffers haven’t seen more than a $500 annual increase over the past few years, most commissioners seem to agree that not all staffers need the raise.
“Not to those who have had the exorbitant pay increases over the last 12 months,” Lockett said, referring to a handful of city staffers Russell gave raises along with new job descriptions.
Commissioner Donnie Smith also disagreed with giving a raise to the city’s highest-paid. He favors rewarding those in the lower ranks for whom retention is a problem.
Commissioners haven’t agreed on how to fill the budget hole. While they’ve asked department heads to find areas to cut and met with Russell about potential savings, they’ve found little beyond single-digit percentage reductions that don’t add up to much.
Former Commissioner Jerry Brigham, an accountant, suggested departments look for ways to reduce their workload, such as planting perennials or low-growing ground cover that require less maintenance.
Since consolidation in 1996, the city simply hasn’t funded sufficient crews to perform services city-wide at the same level, he said, but raising taxes isn’t the answer.
“We need to try to solve our problems in a different way than trying to hire people to cut grass,” Brigham said.
A potential new revenue stream is a stormwater fee. The fee, charged against the amount of impervious surfaces such as rooftops and parking lots, is in development by the Engineering Department.
Engineering Director Abie Ladson has proposed implementing the monthly fee in January and anticipates collecting up to $9 million annually, but he hasn’t cut his budget to correspond with the new revenue, or that from the new Transportation Investment Act sales tax that voters approved last year.
The commission, which authorized development of the fee but has not yet imposed it, hasn’t raised the issue of stormwater fee revenue as a potential aid to the budget.
The commission’s pattern for the past five years has been to budget a dip into savings to cover any shortfall, rather than a tax increase, then rely on departmental cost-cutting year-round to avoid using all or part of the money.
In 2009, 2010 and 2011, the commission budgeted taking $1.8 million or more from savings but wound up increasing the rainy day fund instead, according to data from the city finance office.
In 2008, the commission budgeted withdrawing $5.1 million from savings but took only $3.7 million. In 2012, it approved spending nearly $6 million from savings but withdrew only $3 million.
The reserve fund, expected to cover operating expenses for several months in the event of a catastrophe or other unforeseen expenses, was $31 million a decade ago, $23.2 million in 2005, $35.1 million in 2011 and $32 million in 2012. Commissioners budgeted taking $4.2 million from the fund this year.