Originally created 04/23/04

Warning signals found in budget



The city of Augusta's financial condition is stable, according to information given to city commissioners Thursday by the finance director and tax assessor.

But there are some warning signals that are causing concern, such as insufficient salary savings, a flat tax digest and a projected shortfall in motor vehicle taxes.

Finance Director David Persaud said revenue collections were on target and most expenditures are well within the targeted range of 25 percent through the first quarter that ended March 31, except for one troublesome area.

City officials planned to save $1.08 million during the first quarter by freezing non-emergency vacant positions for 120 days before refilling them, but the actual savings - $229,300 - fell far short.

If the trend continues, the city must increase revenue or make serious cuts beginning in June, Mr. Persaud said.

Commissioner Don Grantham asked him what corrective measures he foresaw.

"When you come up with this shortfall in May, instead of just bringing us the figures and saying, 'Here they are,' I'd like to have some financial recommendations as to what might take place to help handle that situation," Mr. Grantham said. "We know the problems. What we're looking for is a solution."

Commissioner Bobby Hankerson wanted to know whether city officials had been "faithful" to the 120-day hiring freeze.

Public Information Director Peggy Seigler said whenever possible the hold was enforced.

"It is very difficult though," she said. "Everybody seems to be working with smaller staff with less resources these days. We have to take that into consideration."

Voicing concerns about "sinking deeper" into deficit, Mr. Hankerson suggested that it shouldn't be the commissioners' decision whether to freeze a vacancy.

Commissioners apparently won't find the help they're looking for in an increased tax digest this year.

"The commission adopted a zero-growth budget at the end of the year, and that's what our digest is showing right now," Chief Tax Assessor Sonny Reece said. "It's going to be flat-lined."

Mr. Reece presented data to commissioners but said much of it was skewed to paint a more negative picture than actually exists between this year and last year because of reporting dates.

"Basically, we told them the same thing we told them in October during the budget hearings - to keep going with a flat line, no growth, and this first quarter report is too preliminary," Mr. Reece said.

One area of concern, however, is a $837,000 deficit in the motor-vehicle digest.

"If you annualize that, on the four-quarter basis that brings it to about $3.3 million, which shows you revenues are going to be down $3.3 million," he said.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.

CITY REVENUES

Analysis of Operating Statements for General Fund and Law Enforcement Fund as of March 31, 2004:

General Fund

Revenues: Tax collections, 39 percent of the annual budget. No unusual variances. Total revenues, 28 percent of the $58.6 million annual budget.Expenditures: 26 percent

Law Enforcement

Revenues: Seven percent of total $41.5 million budget. This is expected since most law enforcement revenue is generated from ad-valorem taxes, which will not be billed until the last quarter of the year.

Expenditures: $10.4 million, or 24 percent of total budget.Source: Augusta Finance Department records.