Originally created 06/14/06

Sounding the budget alarm

One Augusta commissioner had this to say about the county's budget mess: If we had a finance director right now, he'd be fired.

Commissioners were definitely in a firing mood at a Finance Committee meeting Monday - but couldn't determine who the problem is.

That's because neither an outside auditor nor city Administrator Fred Russell are eager just yet to point fingers until the 2005 budget audit is finished.

Commissioners voted in committee to ask the state for an extension of the June 30 audit deadline - though they were champing at the bit to find out what the holdup is.

Apparently, auditors are having difficulty tracking $3 million or more in the city's budget labyrinth left by former budget director David Persaud, who resigned earlier this year to take another job in Tampa, Fla.

But even as the auditor and Russell tap-danced their way around naming names, it was clear that some departments may not have even been cooperating with the audit.

That wouldn't happen, of course, if the commission would simply give the city administrator hiring and firing authority. As it is, department heads work at the pleasure of the 10 commissioners and the mayor - and they know that if they just stay off the radar of six of the commissioners, they'll be OK.

Meanwhile, commissioners have given Russell until the end of July to recommend how they can cut their way out of this year's $5 million operating deficit. No doubt Russell could do it - but the question is, can he come up with $5 million in cuts that the weak-kneed Augusta Commission will have the gumption to accept?

We better hope so - since commissioners also heard a dismal forecast for tax revenue growth Monday: It's likely the overall value of property in Richmond County won't grow by more than 1 percent this year, if at all.

Among the commission's most difficult choices is whether to scale back the wildly ambitious 8 percent across-the-board raises they foolishly doled out to county employees at the turn of the year. Some have suggested rolling that back to 4 percent, which is more realistic.

One very alarming statistic from the Board of Assessors is the $16 million decrease in the value of motor vehicles in Richmond County - indicative not just of a lull in economic activity, but of an exodus of people and belongings.

Unless and until commissioners and Mayor Deke Copenhaver can get a handle on the city's finances, city government will provide little incentive to stay.


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