Originally created 02/28/01

Budgets' deadline extended



City department heads have spent the past two months slimming down their 2001 budgets, but more time is needed to meet Augusta commissioners' mandated 3.5 percent reduction, according to a financial consultant working with the city.

In an effort to balance the city's budget without raising property taxes or levying additional business fee increases, commissioners asked each government department - from the Superior Court to the motor vehicle tag office - to reduce 2001 expenditures by 3.5 percent. The requested reductions amount to an overall cut of $2.9 million from the city's $94 million annual budget.

Nearly 80 percent of those cuts already have been identified, the finance department has reported. But 21 percent of the necessary reductions still are outstanding, leaving the city about $638,000 in the red.

"We have elected officials and department heads who know what they're doing," said Al Slavens, a former comptroller for the Medical College of Georgia now working for the city as a financial consultant. On Monday, he told the Augusta Commission's Finance Committee, "We're on target; we're just not there yet."

The deadline to receive revised budgets has been extended until the end of March. Until then, a hiring freeze in place since January will remain.

Some departments likely will use the extra month to look at cutting personnel costs in their offices, an account item some officials, including the tax commissioner, had said would be protected from cuts during the budget process.

"If they need to look at staffing, that is something we're asking them to do," Mr. Slavens said.

Finance officials plan to deliver, within the next week, reports detailing unaudited operating expenses for every city department in 2000. The reports are expected to help officials still looking for savings identify places for additional cuts.

The city judicial system has the most left to cut, making only 43 percent of the necessary reductions. The courts must find an additional $177,968 that can be eliminated to meet the cut mandate.

The Department of Public Works has identified almost two-thirds of its necessary cuts, but the remaining 34 percent, or $130,500, likely will require commission approval.

One of several options for finding the remaining cuts in public works includes discontinuing neighborhood and vacant lot cleanups, and reducing the number of litter pickups and eviction cleanups by 50 percent. Cutting those programs would amount to a savings of $138,400, according to department Director Teresa Smith.

Offices that have met 100 percent of their cuts include the Board of Health, the mayor's office and the recreation department.

Several offices that have met the 3.5 percent cuts, including animal control and the tax assessor, have been permitted to make new hires in spite of the citywide hiring freeze.

Offices that have not met the required cuts, however, are not allowed to fill vacant positions. Instead, lapsed salary costs are counted toward those departments' budget reductions.

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.