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County faces funding quandary

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- Flint RiverQuarium Executive Director Scott Loehr will be asked by the Dougherty County Commission to disclose the attraction's operating budget to the board in what appears to be an 11th-hour effort to determine whether the county should allocate tax dollars to the nonprofit aquarium for the next fiscal year.

County leaders are close to approving a budget that includes five unpaid holidays for employees, slashed expenditures for most county departments, and pay cuts for elected and appointed leadership.

On Monday, as time ticked closer to the June 30 deadline to adopt the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, commissioners again debated the merits of doling out another round of taxpayer support for the RiverQuarium, possibly at the expense of the Keep Albany-Dougherty Beautiful Program.

Loehr has approached both the Dougherty County Finance Committee and the full Commission with requests for funding, each time trimming his requested amount. The last time before the commission, he asked that the board continue to support the aquarium by granting a $150,000 appropriation -- $100,000 less than the facility received last year.

Despite the reduction in the request, County Administrator Richard Crowdis and the committee recommended that the funding be cut altogether, with Chairman Lamar Hudgins arguing that it would be nearly impossible for him to support a funding request when county employees would have to endure a pay cut.

Monday, Commissioner Jack Stone first broached the possibility of cutting or eliminating KADB altogether and using its $176,300 annual budget to help fund other programs where the county has been forced to cut, namely employee payroll, the RiverQuarium and the James H. Gray Senior Citizens Center.

"When it comes to our employees, I'd cut KADB and the folks down there both (RiverQuarium)," Stone said. "Our employees have been treated like the red-headed stepchild in this community for years. ... I just think that we should look at our priorities and that that we could take that money and spread it around and help a lot of people."

KADB is funded through Dougherty County's Solid Waste Enterprise Fund and receives no direct taxpayer dollars from either the city or the county.

The organization does receive in-kind services from the city, which amounts to the use of taxpayer resources, but its $176,300 operating budget comes from fees accrued through the use and operation of the Dougherty County Landfill.

While most commissioners at the table expressed concern over cutting all funding for the RiverQuarium, they also expressed some reticence to killing funding for KADB.

"The RiverQuarium is a concern for all of us, I think that's pretty clear... but Keep Albany-Dougherty Beautiful does a much-needed service as well," Chairman Jeff Sinyard said. "I don't know what this community would look like if they didn't exist."

Commissioner Gloria Gaines and Sinyard both expressed interest in testing the financial waters with the city of Albany for a possible compromise.

The idea batted around at the commission was that if the City Commission were willing, it could partially fund KADB, which would allow the County Commission to reallocate the difference in funding to other projects.

While no firm numbers were mentioned, Gaines used $50,000 as a ballpark figure for discussion purposes, meaning that if the city would contribute $50,000 to KADB, then the county would reallocate $50,000 of what had been earmarked for KADB's budget toward the RiverQuarium, employee benefits or another project.

Commissioner Muarlean Edwards suggested that some level of funding be used for the senior center and programs at Albany State University, while Hudgins pushed for any reallocation of funds to be at the benefit of county employees.

"My thoughts are that if we're going to cut, we need to put it towards our employees," Hudgins said.

With a consensus of four commissioners, Sinyard asked Crowdis to ask Loehr to present his budget to the Commission and to ask the city for input into whether it would be open to the idea.