Originally created 11/30/00

County faces budget constraints



Balancing the county's 2001 budget could mean leaner paychecks for local government employees.

At a Wednesday budget work session, Augusta commissioners had little to say about several proposed revenue increases in next year's county budget.

Instead, they talked more about cutting expenses from government departments, including possibly decreasing county employees' cost-of-living pay raises from 3 percent to 2.5 percent and eliminating annual 2 percent merit raises.

Several government employees sitting in the audience shook their heads in disagreement, saying they are underpaid as is.

"We're already saying we can't get the caliber of employee we want," said Brenda Byrd-Pelaez, interim director of the county's human resources department. "If we can't get the perks (such as pay raises), I'm concerned about quality."

After meeting for a little longer than an hour, commissioners agreed to send budget requests back to their respective departments, asking department heads to trim 3 percent of their expenditures.

But Commissioner Bill Kuhlke said in a tight year, trimming the budget may mean employees will end up with a smaller salary - something he said is accepted practice in private business.

"Instead of trying to figure out revenues, I want to figure out how to cut costs," Mr. Kuhlke said.

Last year, commissioners budgeted for county employees to receive a 3 percent cost-of-living increase plus a 2 percent merit raise. Continuing that wage system would cost the city $2.3 million next year.

But cutting that pay raise in half - and giving employees a 2.5 percent increase - would save more than $1.1 million, Mr. Kuhlke said.

The suggestion was not popular with employees, but Andy Cheek was the only county commissioner to oppose the idea openly.

"We're asking our employees to do more and more with the same amount of resources," Mr. Cheek said. "We need to look at adding funding resources before we go cutting into that 3 percent (cost-of-living increase)."

Two versions of the reworked budget were presented at Wednesday's work session.

Without any increases in business license fees, cable franchise fees or liquor license fees, the county's expenditures would exceed revenues by more than $800,000.

When costs for an ambulance contract, job reclassifications and a new contract for the city's prison health care provider were figured in, the county came in between $1.4 million and $2 million over budget.

Finance officials told commissioners that a 10 percent increase in business license fees, a 15 percent increase in liquor license fees, an increase in cable franchise fees from 3 to 5 percent, and increases in bus fares and animal control fees would raise more than $1 million.

In lieu of fee increases, commissioners discussed ways to cut expenses in city departments. A 3 percent across-the-board cut from all government departments would save roughly $2.7 million.

"I think the department heads know the predicament we're in," Commissioner Lee Beard said.

But Al Slavens, a consultant working with the county's finance department to prepare the 2001 budget, said it was unlikely that many departments would return to commissioners with leaner budget requests.

"Ninety-five percent will come back with the same thing or greater," Mr. Slavens said.

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.

The Augusta Commission's next work session for the 2001 budget will be at 5 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Gracewood Community Center.