Augusta officials hash out 2018 budget framework

With a target adoption date of Nov. 21, Augusta leaders hashed out a framework for the 2018 budget, which begins Jan. 1, at a Thursday work session.

 

The total Augusta-Richmond County budget this year was $788.1 million, including all enterprise and special revenue funds. The city’s general fund and law enforcement budget, over which the Augusta Commission has greater control, is $153.6 million of that total.

The 2018 budget faces several large-impact items, City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson said, including the first phase of pay increases she wants to implement for employees “at the lowest rung of the ladder.” The increases will come from an ongoing compensation analysis the commission will be presented early next month, she said.

City departments have already presented their budget requests, and some include new positions they believe are critical to perform their duties, she said.

Other recurrent, big-ticket budget items under consideration include pay hikes sought by the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, a cost-of-living adjustment for all employees, health insurance costs – claims were about $29 million last year – and the lingering effect of the 2014 ice storm, Jackson said. Sheriff Richard Roundtree presented a request for staff raises last month that would cost $2.7 million to $2.8 million.

The city spent $17.9 million to clean up after the 2014 ice storm, and to date has been reimbursed only $12.5 million, Jackson said. Each year since it has replenished depleted reserves by $1.125 million, and may need to continue that effort, Jackson said.

Also weighing on the budget are street light fees – this year’s deficit is nearly $900,000 – and what has become a $1.2 million annual subsidy paid to run the city Housing and Community Development department.

Jackson said she is looking to reduce the subsidy for the department, which largely administers federal grant-funded projects.

Augusta Public Transit costs Augusta about $3.4 million a year, with fares only generating about 12 percent of operating expenses, Augusta’s 911 service will require a $1.75 million transfer not offset by service charges and the new Richmond County Probation Office will likely require a $1 million subsidy next year, Jackson said.

Despite the large expenses, Augusta currently has about 62 days’ worth of operating expenses or $27 million in the bank, Finance Director Donna Williams said. Best practices are to keep 60 to 90 days’ worth, Williams said.

Commissioners raised a number of topics during the session, including Commissioner Bill Fennoy’s suggestion the city consider hiring a chief financial officer.

Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle questioned why new expenses are associated with Augusta implementing a local small business opportunity program, which connects minority small business firms with city contract work. Mayor Hardie Davis rejected the assertion.

“We’re talking about a program that does not hire any people specifically,” Davis said. “It’s part of the overall function of the compliance department.”

Commissioner Sean Frantom, the city Finance committee chairman, inquired Thursday about expenses from Automated Data Processing, or ADP, which provides timekeeping services for about $27,000 a month, and whether other services might be outsourced. He said he hopes the answer for public safety pay increases “is not that we have to raise taxes.”

Frantom said his priorities include increasing the city budget for entertainment, to drive tourism revenue, with an eye on connecting with activities happening in North Augusta. Jackson said cost estimates are being formulated for Augusta to implement a water taxi service.

“We’ve got to start thinking about the future and connectivity with the water,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have some new projects that come to fruition.”

One controversial item not discussed at the session was how to deal with budget requests by non-government entities. A Tuesday effort by Commissioner Sammie Sias to cap requests at $25,000 for all but three entities - two museums and the Greater Augusta Arts Council - was defeated, but some of the non-government groups are expected to appear on next week’s commission meeting agendas.

Sias said Thursday the museums and arts council serve all of Augusta and drive tourism, while the other entities only serve specific groups.

After the meeting Frantom said the session produced “open dialogue,” with commissioners and city staff communicating back and forth. He said three or fewer on the 10-member commission support raising taxes.

Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or susan.mccord@augustachronicle.com.

 

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