About 20 Richmond County Sheriff’s deputies walked away empty-handed Tuesday and Augusta Administrator Janice Allen Jackson said she didn’t like her proposed 2018 budget, either.
“This is the fourth budget that I’ve been a part of,” said Jackson, who began work in November 2015. “Of those four budgets, this is the first time I’m presenting you one I’m not sure I like myself.”
With Augusta contending with only one percent growth in property tax revenues and local option sales tax collections, declining franchise fees and tag ad valorem taxes, and mounting health care bills, Jackson presented a budget that kept nearly all departments at 2017 funding levels. It also increased employee insurance premiums and left just $2.3 million to be spread among the workforce as salary increases based on a compensation study whose final results Jackson said aren’t in yet.
“Ideally that would be $3 million to $4 million” for the raises, Jackson said.
The deputies, who declined to comment to The Augusta Chronicle, wanted Jackson to approve Sheriff Richard Roundtree’s proposal to give the office across-the-board raises, which had a price tag Tuesday of $2.3 million in the budget book Jackson distributed to commissioners. Roundtree pitched the plan in radio commercials that ran over the last few days.
“It’s a bleak picture – we don’t have the money to give them,” Commissioner Ben Hasan said. “They won’t get what he’s asking for. We don’t have it.”
Jackson’s budget rejected dozens of new positions, pay hikes, equipment upgrades and other items sought by city departments, except for a handful of increases and part-time hires requested by Augusta Fire Department to staff ambulances, paid from the fire protection fund.
She increased spending in a few areas – $330,000 to fund 2018 elections, $250,000 for bonded debt service, $735,000 for probation, $750,000 for public transit and $100,000 for pension health benefits.
Jackson proposed tax and fee increases to cover projected losses, but not a countywide millage rate increase. She recommended a half-percent increase in the city’s internal franchise fee paid by Environmental Services for garbage collection and by the stormwater utility fee, a half-mill increase in the fire protection millage rate and an energy excise tax to replace ongoing losses from a four-year-old sales tax exemption on energy used in manufacturing.
Eliminating long-vacant positions whose salaries and benefits Jackson said exceeded $4 million was another way to save, but the savings wouldn’t be anywhere close to $4 million, she said.
“Some of those vacancies are open because the jobs don’t pay enough,” she said. “There are lots of reasons positions have not been filled.”
The budget reflected a net loss of 25 funded positions, bringing the city’s total to 2,817, with a general fund budget of $155 million and a total budget for all funds of $821 million.
After the meeting, Jackson said she recommended leaving department budgets flat, but not cutting spending on items such as travel or food. The cuts “sound good,” Jackson said, “but small things like that are not going to add into millions.”
Commissioner Sean Frantom said city departments could look harder for unneeded positions. “It’s time that we do a deeper dive,” he said. Frantom said Augusta should cut Jackson’s vacant deputy administrator position and find more money for law enforcement raises.
“The $2.3 million for everybody is not where we need to be if people don’t feel safe,” Frantom said.
The commission has four workshops scheduled to work on the budget, starting with one 10 a.m. Monday. Additional workshops are scheduled Nov. 1, 7 and 13, with budget approval scheduled for Nov. 21.
IN OTHER BUSINESS
Commissioner Bill Fennoy made a political statement during the meeting Tuesday, but said it was not connected to law enforcement in the audience. During the meeting invocation and pledge of allegiance, Fennoy knelt on one knee, as many professional athletes have done to in protest police brutality, and said he was praying.
Of the message behind his stance, “It’s hard for black people to get justice in this country,” Fennoy said.