Originally created 01/06/02

Kolb seeks to shift budget cycle



While Augusta commissioners were haggling over government revenues and expenditures last month in a rush to balance the 2002 budget, the Columbus consolidated government was beginning to balance its books.

In Columbus, the budget year runs from July 1 to June 30, and City Manager Carmen Cavezza said he can't imagine doing it any other way.

"Around the holidays and all - to try to get a budget approved in November and December would be very difficult," Mr. Cavezza said. "There are so many distractions."

In light of this year's budget fiascos, City Administrator George Kolb said he agrees. He is working toward a fiscal year that mirrors the Columbus summer budget cycle, and state and federal budget cycles, to help avoid some of the problems a winter budget creates.

"I'm going to try to do it in the next couple of years so we can begin to forecast funding revenue with other government agencies," Mr. Kolb said. "It would make it easier on the commission because you're not competing with holidays. If you do it in the spring, you don't have to worry about it."

Augusta had its share of distractions during budget season this year, but holiday parties and family vacations were the least of commissioners' concerns.

For example, days after the commission was asked to approve a property tax increase, state lawmakers argued that the proposed millage increase - which has now been passed as part of the budget - was illegal. State law that became effective Jan. 1, 2000, requires that a local government advertise and hold public hearings before it can pass a property tax increase.

The city attorney has said the commission doesn't have to comply with the law this year because the rate won't officially be set until summer.

State Sen. Don Cheeks said even if commissioners weren't technically violating the law, they were violating its spirit.

Even more problems arose when commissioners were asked to approve the hiring of a fire chief at the same time budget discussions were set to begin. Several officials said they wouldn't vote for a chief until a finance director had been hired and the budget had been dealt with.

"We cannot do this thing in 30 seconds," Commissioner Willie Mays said Wednesday as budget amendments were being floated to find more revenue for city operations.

When officials rushed to balance the 2002 budget, it passed narrowly, with two commissioners opposed and another two absent - one who was working and one who was away on vacation.

But even when there's time to spare, it seems Augusta's budget process - compared with that of similarly sized governments - is hurried.

Savannah's fiscal year mirrors Augusta's, but approving a budget tends to be anticlimactic, City Manager Mike Brown said.

"We have a year-round process, a series of council workshops," Mr. Brown said. "We put a lot of stock in long-range fiscal planning. ... I don't want to say the budget is not important, but it's really a component of all these workshops."

This year's Augusta budget wasn't presented to commissioners until Dec. 18 and was approved nine days later, on Dec. 27. The 2001 budget, which was first presented in October, was approved the same day last year.

Currently, the final deadline for an approved, balanced budget is Dec. 31.

But by 2004, Mr. Kolb said, he hopes to change to a July-June fiscal year to help avoid some of the hassles he experienced this year.

"The most important thing is to get a balanced budget," he said. "It was difficult this year because there was inflation - utility costs go up, gas goes up, insurance goes up. Fixed costs were rising and revenues were shrinking."

Although the budget can be amended any time, a summer budget cycle would give city officials a better idea of how much tax revenue has been collected, taking some of the guesswork out of budgeting, Mr. Kolb said.

This year's tax increases are being chalked up to a recession and a new emphasis on public safety. And last week, the commission approved another 0.18 mill property tax increase to restore a $500,000 cut to the fire department.

It's not surprising that last year's cutbacks were made during a commission election year, and this year's tax increase came the year after the election, said Ralph Walker, professor emeritus of political science at Augusta State University.

"This is part of the politics of budgeting," Dr. Walker said. "People have short memories, and the farther from an election year you can have a tax increase, the better off you are."

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215.

What's Next: The Augusta Commission will vote on a millage increase this summer, and public hearings are required before the vote.