Columbia County budget reviews show drastic differences in outlook

A pair of upcoming budget reviews in Columbia County are a contrast of feast and famine.

First up Tuesday is next year’s school system budget, where a combination of state funding cuts and rising student enrollment could trigger calls for a second tax increase in three years.

Later in the afternoon, county commission members – who have reduced tax rates four of the past five years – will discuss a budget in which the biggest question is how much tax revenue is expected to grow.

Years of state budget cuts have backed local school officials into a corner, said School Superintendent Charles Nagle. The preliminary $75 million budget for next year had been balanced to within $1 million when the state hit them with a $3 million increase in health insurance costs and a $7 million cut to “equalization” funding.

“They’re choking us off,” Nagle said. “If they want to cut off public education, they just need to say it.”

Thus far, Nagle said, he’s narrowed that gap to about $4 million using a dwindling supply of reserve funds, and on Tuesday, plans to offer school board members options for making up the difference.

“Basically, we’re going to just present the facts at that meeting and list out some priorities,” he said.

Options include reductions in noninstructional employees, including outsourcing; cutting more from the system’s reserves; raising the property tax rate; and employee furloughs – which Nagle adamantly opposes.

“You can’t keep putting the cost of education on the backs of the employees and say ‘you’re just lucky to have a job.’ That’s bull,” Nagle said. “I can more easily say that now that I’m retiring, but this community is going to have to make a decision. We’re already in the marrow. We’ve cut through the bone.”

For the county commission, the only talk of cuts for next year’s nearly $58 million budget is in the form of a comprehensive staff restructuring that could shift general fund expenditures to other county funding sources, with an overall result of more county employees added to the payroll.

“The county is growing so fast that we’ve got to make some changes to keep up with it,” said Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson. “I’m trying to do that within the confines of the current budget.”

Details of that restructuring, however, won’t be finalized until the budget is adopted in June, Johnson said. Instead, he said, Tuesday’s budget session primarily will settle the expected amount of tax digest growth for the year, between 1 and 2 percent, and offer an opportunity for public review.

That session will be at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Evans Government Center Auditorium. School officials will review their budget at 8 a.m. Tuesday at the central office.

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