Lee County directors tackle budget challenges

LEESBURG -- The economy and its impact on goals and challenges facing Lee County leaders dominated the first Lee directors meeting of the new year Thursday.

And while County Administrator Alan Ours drew a wry laugh from his fellow city and county officials when he said "The WD-40 is on order for the budget process; it's going to be a tight one," Library Director Claire Leavy offered what was perhaps the meeting's most sobering comment.

"You can balance your budget on the backs of your employees only so long," Leavy said.

Coordinated by Southwest Georgia Regional Development Center Executive Director Dan Bollinger, Thursday's meeting was used to discuss a list of issues that impact each of Lee and Leesburg's various entities. Representatives of each entity focused on projects that might be accomplished in the coming year.

"I look at this list, and I'm impressed with the progress you've made in the county," Bollinger said.

Lee Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Winston Oxford echoed Bollinger's assessment, noting the "180-degree turnaround" he's seen in the community.

"The rapid-response team that has been put in place to address business concerns in the community is impressive," Oxford said. "In the six years I've been here, I've seen a 180-degree turnaround in the perception of the business community.

"That is a direct result of a buy-in not only by the employees in the community, but by the administration and elected officials."

Noting that tax revenue collections in the county were down 15 to 20 percent in 2009, Ours said he's concerned with a recent Albany Herald article that indicated the Lee County School System had received $3.6 million in 2008 in special-purpose local-option sales tax funds and $3.5 million in '09.

"I know there have been problems with the allocation of tax money by the state, but I was a little concerned when I read that number," the county administrator said. "We haven't touched $3 million in the county, so my concern is that we're not getting our share."

Both Ours and County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said they would continue to encourage department heads to "do more with less."

"In this challenging economy, it's about leadership," Duffy said. "Grand Island, for example, was losing $200,000 a year, and Alan went out there and in one week was able to cut $112,000 from their budget. And we cut the amount of funding they would get from the Board to $40,000.

"There's been a complete turnaround out there. That's the kind of things we have to do. The worst thing we can do is put up roadblocks and barriers."

After Leesburg City Clerk Casey Moore reiterated the theme of "if you don't ask more of your employees, you're not going to get more," Ours offered a supporting analogy.

"I compare it to lifting weights," he said. "If you start at 50 pounds and you feel comfortable at that level, you go up to 60 pounds. You can't stay at the same level; you have to raise the bar."

Asked to find doable projects to focus on in the coming year, Leesburg Mayor Jim Quinn said he'd like to see a comprehensive streetscape plan that will include a three-block area on Starksville Road downtown, as well as planned landscape improvements around the Lee Courthouse.

"With those projects, completion of the wastewater treatment plant (currently under construction) and -- hopefully -- renovation of the (historic) train depot, as well as the North Bypass, the downtown intersection and the Robert B. Lee truck route, we'll have a lot going on," Quinn said. "If we are successful in moving these projects forward, downtown won't look the same."

Chris Boswell, director of the Lee Utilities Authority, said he'd like to see a comprehensive sewer and water plan developed as part of the county's overall comprehensive plan.

"The whole reason we revisited these challenges was so that it didn't become just something that we did a year ago," Ours said. "As we meet each month, I'd like to see us start attacking these issues, find ways that we can help each other accomplish our goals."