Russell said he intends to reveal to commissioners at a work session today how he will close the gap on a $700 million spending plan that showed a $5 million shortfall when he presented it to commissioners last month.
Despite whatever tweaks Russell presents, Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles called the budget proposal “kicking the can down the road” and one he’ll likely vote against.
“I was pretty disgusted last year when we needed to make some cuts and six commissioners didn’t want to address the issues,” said Bowles, a fiscal conservative.
Russell’s draft put general fund spending at $83.3 million, a $55,310 decrease from 2012, despite departmental requests exceeding $87 million. He budgeted $52.9 million for general fund law enforcement, a $1.7 million increase from 2012 and more than the sheriff’s office requested, according to budget documents.
The budget apparently makes no substantial adjustments to any department’s funding, or cuts in jobs or services.
Russell’s original draft proposed spending $4 million from the city’s reserves, which stand at about $25 million. The 2013 budget’s largest sources of general fund revenue are $8.2 million from real estate property taxes, $16.7 million from electric franchise taxes and $7.1 million from local option sales taxes, all of which are expected to be down from 2012.
The budget adds several new positions, including a “retail economic development specialist” to spearhead retail growth in neglected areas and a compliance specialist to review government contracts for the procurement department. The retail development position has a salary and benefits package of $78,465, and the compliance specialist would receive salary and benefits totaling $86,179.
Commissioner Bill Lockett, calling himself “a liberal Democrat,” said the compliance specialist might have kept the city out of ongoing contract trouble resulting from commission decisions to outsource the bus service and golf course. However, he added, too many questions about new expenses remain, such as the city’s recent switch to a self-funded employee health insurance pool and the opening of Augusta Convention Center, which is expected to operate at a loss.
“We might just go ahead and adopt this past year’s budget,” he said, “and when the new commission comes in we go back and revisit it.”
Depending upon the outcome of a runoff in District 1, there could be four new commissioners taking office in January.
Also yet to be felt is the impact of the state’s elimination of sales taxes on energy used in manufacturing and that of a proposed new stormwater fee to repair aging infrastructure, which must receive commission approval, Lockett said.
“We’re in a mess, and we’re one of the lowest-taxed cities in America,” he said.
Bowles, who leaves office in January, opposed adding the retail specialist or placing the compliance officer under procurement.
“I never think it’s a good idea for the government to take over a function that the private sector does much better,” he said.
Bowles said he preferred adding a compliance officer in the law department. Otherwise, the officer would be “reviewing contracts for someone who supervises them,” he said.
While Russell’s budget adds several other positions in the public defender, district attorney, probate judge and marshal’s offices, it omits new positions in departments Bowles said needed them – the tax assessor’s office and licensing and inspections.
“If you put the money there, it’s going to pay for itself,” he said.