Originally created 08/30/99

Combined government not cheaper



Who said local government consolidation would save money?

Just about everybody -- before it happened. And some folks still say it will over the long haul.

But others, including Augusta Mayor Bob Young, say city commissioners aren't even trying to cut spending.

"You know, I don't know that anybody around here is interested in saving money," the mayor said. "I haven't seen any proposal that cuts spending anywhere that's come from inside this government."

Since Augusta and Richmond County merged in 1996, the consolidated government's general-fund budget has increased by $25.3 million to $120.77 million this year. The payroll has grown by $9.4 million to $67.2 million.

The general-fund budget pays for such functions as administration, law enforcement, fire protection, recreation and public works. It does not include 1-cent sales-tax projects or street lights.

Most of the $25.3 million increase occurred between 1996 and 1998 with the opening of a new 500-bed jail and the hiring of 68 new sheriff's deputies.

Public safety, which includes the sheriff's and fire departments and the Richmond County Correctional Institute, received increases of $11.4 million during that period.

So don't blame it all on consolidation, said Commissioner Jerry Brigham, a member of the city commission's Finance Committee.

"So many things were in place that were going to happen whether or not consolidation happened," Mr. Brigham said. "When you add jail cells, you add operating expenses. And when you add deputies, you add court costs and the costs of trying people. It's not cheap."

Members of the Augusta Commission question expenses now that went unexamined in the past, Mr. Brigham said.

The general-fund budget rose $3.05 million this year. It could have been less if commissioners had taken opportunities to make cuts, Mr. Young said.

"You know we had a chance to save $300,000 when we reorganized the Public Works Department," he said. "The commission passed on that. We had an opportunity to save even more money by privatizing the lawn mowing. The commission passed on that.

"They increased the building inspection fees 20 percent. I tried to get them to roll back the millage rate (to offset gains from this year's) property reassessments -- $322,000 -- and they didn't do that."

The city's $167,000 efficiency study -- unveiled a few months ago -- contains $2.7 million worth of potential savings. However, none of its major recommendations has been adopted except for elimination of one job at Old Government House by putting it under the recreation department, the mayor said.

Mr. Brigham predicts some of the study's recommendations will eventually be implemented -- but not $2.7 million worth.

"There are things in there you can't do, such as you can't take the Ports Authority and contract it out to recreation department," he said. "We have a Ports Authority and if it's going to be contracted out, the Ports Authority is going to have to be the one to contract it out."

Commissioner Stephen Shepard suggested each city department submit two budget proposals for the coming fiscal year -- one that did not include implementation of the study recommendations and one that did. Commissioners approved that idea.

They may seriously consider some of the recommendations when they work on next year's budget.

"Next year is going to be difficult," said Assistant Finance Director David Collins.

Here are a few reasons why:

Dollars city officials can divert from water and sewer revenues will be reduced $1.5 million to $1 million. Before city-county consolidation in 1996, Augusta transferred $8 million to $10 million a year to keep the city running to the detriment of infrastructure.

The federal grant that paid most of the costs of hiring the 68 new deputies will decrease about $1 million next year. In 2001, the city will assume the full costs of $2.3 million.

Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes' Taxpayers' Bill of Rights means there will be no property-tax revenue increase from reassessments, which usually bring about $1 million more each year in property tax revenues. Commissioners can still raise property taxes, but only after announcing a millage-rate increase and holding three public hearings.

"Basically, you cannot assess ad valorem (property) taxes on reassessments from homeowners," Mr. Collins said. "So the only increase we would get on ad valorem taxes would be from new construction or improvements. It's hard to figure out how much that's going to cost us, but it will dramatically reduce the amount of revenue that we will have available next year."

Mr. Young sees privatization -- turning over government operations to private contractors -- as a way to cut government growth.

"We need to get out of the business of doing those things that we don't do well," he said. "Let the private sector do it. And the fewer employees we have, the better off we are because that's where your biggest cost is in -- personnel and human resources."

Sylvia Cooper covers Richmond County government for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3228 or sylviaco@augustachronicle.com.