Originally created 06/02/04

Session's goal to trim deficit

Augusta commissioners will meet today for a belt-tightening session geared toward heading off a big budget deficit and a possible property tax increase.

The finance committee also expects to hear definitive answers on how much money and how many uncompleted projects are left from the city's first four special-purpose sales tax issues.

In the budget session, commissioners expect to hear how 6 percent cuts from city departments will affect operations.

Fewer firefighters and recreation centers, no Saturday service by public transit and an unhappy sheriff are possibilities as commissioners enter the second half of the budget year looking at a $3.9 million deficit that could grow to $8.6 million by the end of 2005.

In a separate issue, a recent report by the city's internal auditor, J.T. Cosnahan, concerning the status of the first four phases of special-purpose sales-tax finances caught some city staffers off guard last week and raised questions they hoped to answer during a meeting with the auditor and public works and finance officials.

Mr. Cosnahan's report indicated that $3.68 million from the first sales tax issue was still undesignated, but Administrator George Kolb said $2 million of that amount was reserved for maintenance.

"I think before you start spending that money designating it somewhere, you need to figure out what those restrictions are," Mr. Kolb warned. "The reason we haven't touched that money is our former attorney cautioned us on doing that. So there needs to be further research on that."

Mr. Cosnahan said that information was not included in the data provided him by the city's finance department.

Public Works Director Teresa Smith, whom commissioners look to for answers concerning the sales-tax projects, had not been given a copy of the report until the meeting

Commissioner Don Grantham said that in fairness to Mrs. Smith, she should be given the Phase I report to compare it with the public works schedule of projects that have been completed.

"Just because we assume that information from finance is complete, it may not be complete." Mr. Grantham said.

Mr. Kolb recommended that Mrs. Smith make the comparison for all projects in the three sales-tax phases the internal auditor had audited.

During that meeting, Mr. Grantham said he was disturbed to learn that there are projects on the first phase of the tax that have not yet been completed.

"I'm looking here 14 years, 15 years later, and I'm seeing uncompleted projects, and it bothers me to see we've collected money and we've sold additional SPLOST programs and have not completed the previous ones we've had," he said.

"I'm sitting around this table here questioning it, and I wonder how many people out in the general public are going to question it."

Mr. Kolb said he did not want to leave the impression that work was not being done or that money was not being set aside for some specific purposes.

"SPLOST I has very few projects that are remaining, and it kind of goes uphill (with SPLOST II)," he said. "You have to understand, this organization only has so much capacity to do so many projects."

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


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