Originally created 09/06/97

Commission sets priorities during retreat



Law enforcement is a top funding priority for city commissioners, and many believe programs for the arts and the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum should be cut.

Those were the results of a questionnaire on spending priorities to which Augusta commissioners and Mayor Larry Sconyers responded during a budget retreat Friday as city officials considered cutting at least $6 million from the budget.

Law enforcement was the No. 1 priority for eight of the nine respondents and the No. 2 priority for the other respondent.

But most commissioners said they did not favor increased spending for public safety. A majority indicated the city should increase spending for "helping neighborhoods help themselves."

"The inner city has been neglected for years," said Commissioner Henry Brigham. "There's a lot going on with Riverwalk, but we're going to have to spread out, and that's one good way to spread out."

Most commissioners said they favored decreased spending for indigent care, the Augusta-Richmond County Museum, the Old Government House, the coliseum and unspecified arts projects.

"It's clear that the cuts talked about today don't reach (the $6 million) figure," Commissioner Rob Zetterberg said. "If you're looking at it from a purely business standpoint, you've got to look at cutting personnel, services and outside funding."

Mayor Pro Tem Freddie Handy and Commissioner J.B. Powell did not attend the retreat.

Augusta officials must cut the proposed 1998 budget to head off a projected $9.34 million budget shortfall next year, according to Augusta Administrator Randy Oliver.

But some commissioners don't believe the administrator's figures.

"No, no. We've come up here with inflated figures," said Mr. Brigham, who added that department heads have submitted "wish lists" instead of realistic budget figures.

Mr. Oliver disagreed. "No. I don't think the department figures are that far off," he said.

Mr. Oliver told commissioners Friday that one-third of the shortfall can be made up through increased revenue; one-third through "true savings," such as a reduced payroll through attrition if the board implements a hiring freeze now; and one-third through cuts to outside agencies, such as arts groups and museums.

The commission's finance committee voted for the freeze two weeks ago, but when the issue went before the full board Tuesday it resulted in a no-action vote.

Mr. Handy, who was not at Friday's retreat, voted against the freeze Tuesday and suggested city staffers are manufacturing a budget crisis with inflated 1998 budget estimates.

Initial budget requests for 1998 total $84.34 million and projected revenues $75 million. 1998 expense projections show:

  • Public safety increasing 21.89 percent to $36.7 million.
  • Judicial increasing 5.7 percent to $9.58 million.
  • Cultural and recreation increasing 9.9 percent to $9.14 million.
  • Public works increasing 0.66 percent to $8.02 million.
  • Administrative services increasing 32.22 percent to $6.5 million.
  • Health and welfare increasing 3.5 percent to $6 million.
  • Tax commission and assessors increasing 5.36 percent to $3.38 million.
  • Transfers out to other departments or accounts, such as capital outlay, increasing 63.2 percent to $2.18 million.
  • Debt service increasing 26.59 percent to $1.9 million.
  • Economic, community and environment increasing 3.92 percent to $843,481.
  • Mr. Oliver presented figures showing that the city-county government receives only $296, or 26 percent, of the money from a $1,128.80 property tax bill on a $100,000 house. The school board gets $822.80 for 72.89 percent.

    From the city's portion, $239.60 goes to public safety with the rest going to county operations, fire protection and bond debt.

    Mr. Oliver has also instructed city department heads to cut their 1998 budget requests by 5 percent. The only departments exempt from the proposed cuts are public safety and those with enterprise funds that generate revenue through fees, such as water and sewer and the landfill.

    Projected money

    Augusta's 1998 revenue projections show:

  • Total general-fund revenue increasing 0.65 percent to $75 million.
  • Property taxes increasing 4.88 percent to $17.73 million through growth and reassessments.
  • Other taxes, such as alcohol and franchise fees, decreasing 0.35 percent to $12.74 million.
  • Local option sales taxes remaining the same at $21.4 million.
  • Licenses and permits decreasing 1.29 percent to $1.72 million.
  • Charges for services, such as building rental and parking fees, decreasing 8.68 percent.
  • Fines and fees decreasing 12.61 percent to $5.64 million.
  • Grants and reimbursements increasing 158.76 percent to $4.47 million.
  • Operating transfers decreasing 21.01 percent to $5.64 million.