Augusta Commission members met Wednesday to consider budget cuts that could curb a projected $3.9 million deficit by year's end.
While emphasizing there is no budget "crisis" because commissioners can always dip into reserve funds, Administrator George Kolb presented options that could save $3.6 million, leaving an estimated budget shortfall of only $416,000.
They included $1 million in savings from the city's manpower management plan, which was originally budgeted to save $4 million from not filling vacant positions for 120 days. Implementing a total hiring freeze for the rest of the year would save $1 million, he said.
Another $1 million would come from dipping into reserves designated for running the government for at least 90 days in case of an emergency. This year's budget was balanced with $1.4 million from reserve funds.
Spending reductions included leasing four recreation centers to neighborhood groups, cutting maintenance on Riverwalk Augusta and cleaning up vacant lots.
Mr. Kolb said implementing a freeze on purchasing except for essential purchase orders and reducing travel and cell phones would save $250,000. He also proposed raising recreation fees.
Mayor Bob Young suggested one-day furloughs for employees, which would save $300,000, or the possibility of another tax increase.
"I'm not recommending that, but do you want to lay people off or do you want to keep everything?" he said. "You could raise taxes 1 mill and not have a problem."
The 2004 budget already includes a 0.6302 mill increase, which amounts to about $22.05 on a $100,000 house with homestead exemption, but the increase has not formally been approved.
Commissioner Marion Williams, who objected to some of the proposals, said he was getting mixed messages. He said that when he heard of Finance Director David Persaud's memo outlining the budget situation while he was at a conference in Savannah, he was told it wasn't that serious.
"Now we're talking about a hiring freeze, and it seems like bells and alarms should be going off," he said.
Commissioner Don Grantham said commissioners should look at every penny.
"Nickels and dimes are just as important in a big business as in a little business," he said. "We, as commissioners, are charged with being good stewards. A telephone bill or gas bill might not seem a lot, but to a guy riding a bus who picks up a newspaper and sees what we're spending, it seems a lot."
Mr. Kolb reminded commissioners that he asked them last fall to hire a consultant to look at the tax digest, which decreased last year and is expected to be flat this year.
Mr. Grantham noted that five years ago, business personal property was 62 percent of the tax revenues received. That has fallen to 30 percent today, he said.
"I think we need to look at this," he said. "There are some dollars that are not being accounted for. I think that's a very, very important area."
Also Wednesday, commissioners discussed financial information concerning the first four phases of the special-purpose sales tax in an effort to determine how much money is left in each fund and how many projects have been completed and closed out. They left the meeting with no definitive answers.
Public works and finance officials were ordered to meet, try to figure it all out and report back in two weeks.
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Administrator George Kolb offered options to stem the budget shortfall.