Originally created 12/30/00

Biting the budget bullet 123000 - The Augusta Chronicle



The Augusta Commission bit the 2001 budget bullet just in time to meet its legally mandated deadline.

We still think the boost in business, liquor and franchise fees hurts many merchants and stifles the city's entrepreneurial spirit. However, we commend the 8-2 majority for not flinching from imposing the across-the-board 3.5 percent expense cut on all city agencies, including the Sheriff's Department.

It's not easy for elected officials to make those kinds of decisions, even when circumstances dictate that they must. Commissioners also did right by resisting the temptation to dip into reserve funds to plug the million dollar-plus deficit.

There's no surer road to disaster than spending emergency money on operations that are supposed to be paid for out of the general fund. It's akin to a family spending rainy-day money on groceries; then when something unexpected happens, there's not enough bucks in the till.

The weeping and gnashing of teeth by retiring Sheriff Charlie Webster and Sheriff-elect Ronnie Strength over the 3.5 percent cut in their budget, and their fear that it will severely compromise security, is understandable but not persuasive.

They just hired four deputies, and now they say they'll be cutting 41 deputies and seven beats? That's Chicken Little talk, apparently designed to frighten the public into pressuring commissioners to restore some, if not all, the cuts. Let's not panic.

It's unfortunate but the new sheriff, like other department heads, has to do more with less. Indeed, Strength says he's going to handle the cuts via attrition; hence, any deputy shortfall is not going to happen all at once. There'll be time to adjust.

Moreover, not all attrition will be a result of 41 deputies quitting their jobs. Some attrition will involve clerks or senior employees (some inherited from the old city police department due to consolidation) retiring or moving on.

This brings up another issue touched on by last year's efficiency study, which rapped the sheriff's department for being over staffed. Strength admits he has too much office-bound brass that he can't get rid of because when city and county law-enforcement agencies consolidated five years ago they were promised they wouldn't lose their jobs.

Now the sheriff is stuck with an oversupply of majors, captains and lieutenants. Technically, Strength could fire them all, but he knows that would be a terrible way to treat people who have spent their adult lives protecting the public.

What the city commission can and should do to help the new sheriff is to work up a new early retirement package. There weren't many takers when it was offered right after consolidation, but Strength says the old-timers are five years older now and may want to say goodbye if the incentives are right.

Finding a humane way to shed the dead weight should be a top priority this coming year for the sheriff and the commission. It's time for consolidation to stop costing taxpayers money and, instead, begin saving it.