With just a few days left before they must, by law, finalize the city budget, Augusta city fathers have precious little time left. Hence, it was disheartening they made such meager progress at Thursday's budget meeting.
Some of the commissioners felt compelled to pontificate to the cameras instead of making the hard choices that must be made.
The city budget is far out of balance. Up to now Commission Finance Chairman Steve Shepard has done the heavy lifting, coming up with some thoughtful proposals that include a small property tax increase of 1.75 mills, to be designated for homeland security only (police and fire). He would combine that with a $1.2 million cut to existing programs and some dipping into the reserve funds.
Programs to be cut would be made at the city's two largest departments - Parks and Recreation and Public Works.
We suggest the following cuts could help those two agencies cope:
Eliminate the DARE program. Take that $300,000 and hire new deputies for the Sheriff's Department.
Eliminate the Human Relations Commission. Give that $258,000 to Parks and Recreation to keep programs running in the inner city.
Contract out mowing and landscaping. City workers are being paid to sit through rainy days when they can't mow. A contractor would be paid only for the mowing that's done, not for waiting out the weather. We estimate this would save another $250,000 - and could be given to Public Works for other priorities.
Reduce indigent care contributions by $250,000. Local hospitals are working to set up a new system to handle indigent care, and the hospitals' profits are up substantially. Give that money to Public Works for road maintenance and cleanup.
Trim funding for the port authority marina fund. People using the docks can pay for them and the money-losing marina store ought to be managed so it supports itself.
Require more efficiency from the court system, as suggested by Commissioner Andy Cheek; cases should be assigned to judges, rather than the current potluck method that wastes the time of jurors, witnesses and guards. Cheek hit this on the head when he said that over $1 million could be saved if cases were properly managed.
Refinance the debt to take advantage of lower interest rates.
Finally, Rep. Jack Connell, D-Augusta, says no new property taxes can be implemented before the commission has three public hearings. If he's right, commissioners need to get out their erasers and start trimming.