City Administrator Fred Russell has presented the Augusta Commission with a good budget blueprint for next year. There's plenty of heavy lifting to be done as commissioners look ahead to discussions and workshops in the coming weeks before they earn their keep by making the final budget decisions.
But Russell has got them off to a good start with a $113.55 million budget proposal that eliminates a projected $7.8 million deficit with a combination of somewhat painful spending cuts and a mild property tax boost of .34 mills, or about $11 a year on a $100,000 house.
A principal asset of the Russell plan is that, for the first time in five years, it would balance the budget without pulling money out of the rainy-day fund. The hardest part of the proposal for commissioners to swallow will be the $7.29 million in cuts and savings that call for getting rid of 46 government jobs, including 22 layoffs. Even though none of the eliminated jobs would come from the sheriff's department, Russell does suggest $500,000 be cut from that office. We're sure commissioners will hear from Sheriff Ronnie Strength about that.
On the other hand, a number of nonprofit agencies and city departments that were facing huge budget cuts a few months ago, when the extent of the deficit problem first surfaced, come off much better under Russell's proposal, thanks in part to a windfall in sales tax revenues as a result of higher gasoline prices. Arts groups, for instance, which were being cut off at the knees, would receive $100,000 to share.
Commissioner Andy Cheek suggested that the Downtown Development Authority's proposed $298,200 allocation be cut in half since it dissolved Main Street Augusta. Let the DDA prove him wrong. Without Main Street, DDA's responsibility is substantially reduced, and so are its money needs.
Any savings could be given to the art groups that, even if they do get some of their city money restored, could use much more if they are to continue to contribute as much to the area's culture and quality of life in the future as they have in the past.
The tax increase the administrator calls for is small, but it's still a tax increase. Couldn't the $1.375 million it's designed to raise be reached by selling more city-owned property as urged by Mayor Deke Copenhaver? As long as any tax increase plan is on the table, some commissioners will want to boost it even more. They don't understand that no community can tax itself to prosperity.