Tax rate hike not in Augusta budget proposal

City Administrator Fred Russell gave Augusta commissioners an option Tuesday for balancing the 2010 budget without any of the tax rate increases he has floated in recent weeks.

Among other things, the plan involves furloughing employees, privatizing the Augusta Municipal Golf Course, planning for fewer prisoners, taking tax money away from the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority, shutting off lights at tennis courts and walking tracks and eliminating funding for First Friday.

"I'm not too sure it's going to get better than this, ladies and gentlemen," Mr. Russell said at the conclusion of his presentation.

While commissioners generally liked what they heard, they held off on actually passing the budget, which has a general fund total of $124.4 million in revenues and expenses. City code requires them to adopt a plan at the second meeting in November, so they recessed and will continue the discussion in a special-called session before the next regular meeting in December.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham said he would have trouble voting on a budget full of cuts while the commission is still considering adding positions next year.

City Attorney Chiquita Johnson has asked the panel to add "compliance" positions to ensure that the city is following proper procedures in awarding contracts and distributing state and federal grants -- an effort to cut down on lawsuits. Her proposal calls for "attorney(s), compliance managers and a public information officer."

The commission voted Tuesday to have Mr. Russell determine how many staffers would be needed and what they would cost, which he said could take months. Commissioner Joe Bowles asked him to see if the work could be outsourced so the people could be let go when they're no longer needed.

"Once you grow government, it's going to stay that way," Mr. Bowles said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Russell's new budget proposal would have all city employees -- elected officials included -- furloughed for four days next year for a savings of $814,000. The days would be taken in September, October, November and December, allowing the commission to revisit the finances mid-year and, if things are looking up, rethink the furlough plan.

Mr. Russell's overall plan involves more than $4.3 million in expenditure reductions. With Sheriff Ronnie Strength's approval, it includes $500,000 in cuts to the sheriff's office and $500,000 in prisoner cost cuts through a decrease in the inmate population. It has $163,670 in cuts to the Recreation department, including a $70,000 savings from phasing out 15 positions through attrition, a $25,000 savings from cutting First Friday funding, and a $55,000 savings from shutting off lights at all tennis courts except the ones at the Newman, Diamond Lakes and Fleming tennis centers, and at the walking tracks at Sand Hills, Brigham, Warren Road, McBean and Blythe parks.

Mr. Russell said he also wants the commission to look into privatizing the Augusta Municipal Golf Course, and his new plan only provides funding for "the Patch" for six months at $155,200.

Some components of his last budget proposal remained intact. His plan still includes routing $600,000 a year in beer taxes away from the coliseum authority, generating $200,000 a year through stepped up efforts to collect delinquent taxes, and saving $650,000 a year through a new employee retirement incentive program. A $1.8 million shortfall in Augusta Public Transit would still likely be plugged by taking money out of reserves.

Mr. Russell told commissioners the city's rainy day fund will have $23.6 million -- enough to operate for 69 days -- after money is taken in from bond issuance for sales tax projects.

The administrator also advised commissioners to continue pursuing an eighth-penny Municipal Option Sales Tax, or MOST, which, if enacted quickly, could generate $9 million next year and make up for the 2010 budget's original $8.6 million shortfall. That would require state legislation and a referendum in July.

Mr. Russell's new option, however, balances the budget without a new sales tax, nor does it include the 1.317 millage rate increase -- a $46.10 bill hike for a $100,000 house -- or even the 0.1 street light mill increase he's suggested in recent meetings.

The city government hasn't raised its millage rate since 2006.

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

ALCOHOL LICENSES

The Augusta Commission voted 9-0, with J.R. Hatney abstaining, to revoke the Sunday alcohol sales licenses for The Original Tavern and Allie Katz Bar & Grill -- two of the four bars granted seven-day sales on a probationary basis while they tried to get their food sales up to 50 percent, as a state law requires.

Over six months, The Original Tavern's food sales averaged 30.83 percent, and Allie Katz averaged 19.7 percent.

Admitting failure, Original Tavern owner Shawn Laws told the commission he would not re-apply for a Sunday license in January, but asked if he could keep his current license for six more months so he could follow through with two booked Christmas parties and not have to lay off an employee. His request was denied.

Two other businesses with probationary licenses, Limelite Café and Finish Line Café, will likely be before the commission in December, according to License and Inspection Director Rob Sherman.

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