Originally created 12/17/00

Balancing budget threatens services



Trimming the Transit Department's budget by 3 percent - or $86,648 - is equivalent to eliminating one bus route.

Finding the same percentage of savings in Parks and Recreation would include shutting off the lights at most city-owned playing fields two nights a week and permanently cutting off those that light 15 public tennis courts.

And the Department of License and Inspections found half of its 3 percent cut in the city's demolition account, which funds a program to knock down abandoned and dilapidated homes. A proposed $21,000 reduction from the public safety program would cut in half the number of homes demolished next year.

By law, the city's 2001 budget must be balanced by Tuesday. During the course of three work sessions in the past two months, officials have asked city department heads to revisit their financial books for cost cuts to the tune of 3 percent.

Some departments have found that money in education accounts, training dollars and learning materials.

But many report the only places left to find savings are areas that affect services, meaning ultimately that Richmond County residents will be the ones to lose out.

"Some departments have said, `I can cut a person, I can cut three people, but I have to cut services,"' interim Administrator Walter Hornsby told Augusta commissioners last week during a budget work session. "But if there's going to be a cut, there should be a definition of what services you're willing to do without."

In coming days, commissioners will be faced with selecting what is sacrificed and what is saved.

As of Saturday morning, the city's 2001 budget still showed a $2.7 million deficit.

Revenue-raising proposals - which primarily have come from the finance department or former City Administrator Randy Oliver - have included increases in business and alcohol license fees, bus fares and property taxes.

Suggested solutions for making up the deficit - which mostly have come from commissioners - have included instituting a hiring freeze, implementing an early retirement package and cutting into government employees' annual 5 percent pay raises by as much as 3 percent.

In lieu of cost-cutting measures that would affect raises or personnel positions, many department heads have searched for additional cuts, even when it has appeared there was little room to find them.

"Although this has proven to be a difficult task, it was, in our opinion, much less difficult than the alternative proposed to impact the salaries of employees," Director of Public Works Teresa Smith wrote in a cover letter for her budget revisions. "We hope that this (3 percent) decrease will be sufficient to balance the 2001 budget without implementing actions that would have a personal impact on the employees."

Cuts in public works are expected to affect city response time to work orders by an additional three to five weeks, Ms. Smith said. Current response time ranges from four to 12 weeks. To date, public works has received more than 10,000 work orders for various city projects, such as sidewalk repairs, detention pond maintenance and vacant lot cleanups; 1,700 are outstanding.

"Basically it's just a cumulative impact," Ms. Smith said.

The office of the tax commissioner has said cuts to its staff would likely require closing the south Richmond County tag office.

"If there are budget cuts, this office would suffer," Tax Commissioner Jerry Saul said. "We're sort of like the fire department. I have to have the firemen to put out the fire - I have to have the personnel to wait on the taxpayers."

Parks and Recreation would need to make more than $187,000 in cutbacks to meet its 3 percent reduction, and $41,000 has been proposed to come from economizing on electrical costs, department Director Tom Beck said.

In addition to abolishing two job positions and consolidating several recreation programs, the department has found that cutting off the lights of about 15 public tennis courts, plus reducing night play at city athletic fields two nights a week, would net significant utility savings.

Currently, lights function on city fields Monday through Friday. Under the proposed cuts, the electricity would be cut off two nights a week, and several league games would be moved to Saturday afternoons.

"The public has been used to playing during the week and having weekends for family activities," Mr. Beck said. "We feel like it's something we can do and the public will still participate in it, but I think it will have an impact on delivery of service."

The Transit Department has been hit doubly hard during the budget process this year with both revenue increases and cuts for savings.

In the city budget proposal for 2001, Augusta Transit Authority fares might be increased, raising regular rates from 75 cents to $1 and senior citizen, disabled and student rates from 35 cents to 50 cents. In the proposal, ADA paratransit fares also would be raised, from $1.50 to $2. The measure would generate $135,000 toward the budget shortfall.

And a 3 percent cut would require eliminating one bus from a peak route or one entire route, likely the downtown shuttle, which operates out of the 15th Street transfer facility every half-hour.

"We would lose ridership with a fare increase, but if you lose a route, that ridership goes away, and sometimes you never see it again," said Heyward Johnson, director of transit. "As you cut the service, the savings aren't real savings because you lose revenue, too."

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.