Columbia County budget cuts required

With more than six months to go before a new fiscal year starts, Columbia County officials already are looking to trim 5 percent from the budget.

On Tuesday, commissioners approved sending a memo to department heads and division directors asking them to cut their budgets for the next fiscal year based on the expectation of a 5 percent loss in revenues.

"The grim financial situation in the nation is being reflected in the exceedingly low growth of the tax digest and the decline in sales tax revenues in Columbia County," according to the memo.

About $15.5 million of the county's $56.5 million general fund was expected to come from the sales tax. However, those revenues are down 5.06 percent compared to last year, county Finance Director Leanne DeLoach said. Earlier in the year, sales tax revenues were down by as much as 7.84 percent.

A new state law imposing a three-year moratorium on raising property values through reassessments also hampers the county's ability to increase property tax revenues without increasing the millage rate.

"When you're losing revenues, your only choices are to cut expenses or raise taxes," Deputy Administrator Scott Johnson said. "We're not going to raise taxes."

Commission Chairman Ron Cross said he and his colleagues are dedicated to working within a balanced budget without further burdening property owners.

Commissioners are asking directors and managers to employ "zero based" budgeting, meaning officials must go through all line items in their budgets to find cuts.

Suggestions for savings in the memo include eliminating nonessential programs, deferring capital expenses, eliminating nonessential vacant positions and delaying hiring.

Departments that receive money through the general fund should "anticipate no new hires unless other expenses are reduced," according to the memo.

Numerous positions already have been eliminated since the 2008-09 fiscal year, including three in the Columbia County Library.

Constitutional officers, including the sheriff and tax commissioner, have added positions since last fiscal year, but officials said the hires were necessary so those departments can keep up with growth.

Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115, or donnie.fetter@augustachronicle.com.

WHAT'S NEXT

Planning for new budgets typically starts in January; officials intend to further discuss budget woes Jan. 12. Elected officials, division directors and department heads are expected to attend.

POSITIONS ELIMINATED SINCE 2008

Department - Number Cut - Savings

Engineering - 1 - $127,596

Maintenance - 1 - $121,362

Planning - 1 - $54,484

Human resources - 1 - $45,349

Finance - 1 - $30,411

Libraries* - 3 - $153,344

Recreation - 1 - $28,950

Roads and Bridges - 1 - $83,398

Total - 10 - $644,894

POSITIONS ADDED SINCE 2008

Department - Number Added - Cost

Tax Assessor - 1 - $38,807

Libraries* - 1 - $35,201

Senior Center - 1 - $59,933

Tax Commissioner - 1 - $31,927

Magistrate Court - 1 - $49,596

Superior Court - 1 - $25,259

Clerk of Court - 3 - $104,009

Sheriff's Office - 10 - $400,439

Total - 19 - $745,171

*The Columbia County Library created a new position in the 2008-09 fiscal year, but three were eliminated at the libraries the following fiscal year.