Dougherty eyes furloughs

ALBANY, Ga. -- With decreased property and sales tax revenues, a shrinking tax digest and the increasing cost of simply doing business, county leaders say severe measures are needed to keep the county afloat and that they have no alternative but to furlough county employees.

While state employees have felt the financial sting of furloughs for more than a year, the Dougherty County Commission had managed to successfully trim its budget in previous years without asking its employees to take unpaid time off.

But with deep cuts already in place to virtually every department and revenues continuing to plummet, County Administrator Richard Crowdis says that he has no other option but to furlough employees.

Under Crowdis' plan, which was presented to the Dougherty County Commission's Finance Committee Wednesday, most county employees will have to take 12 unpaid days off during the year with most of those days occurring on already scheduled holidays.

The commission will ultimately set dates for three of the 12 days during which the county will effectively shut down, save only law enforcement and public safety entities such as EMS and the sheriff's office and jail, Crowdis said.

"We have to curtail our expenses because our fund balance (reserves) can only last so long, which is affecting our budget so we're having to take some severe measures," Crowdis said, "...I've gone back and forth on this and think that this is the best way to do the furloughs without impacting service levels too much."

The Dougherty County Police Department, the Dougherty County EMS and the Dougherty County Sheriff's Office -- which operates both the sheriff's office and the jail -- will stagger the days individual employees are furloughed so that there is never a 24-hour period where there are no law enforcement or public safety units patrolling the county.

But officials at the Dougherty County District Attorney's Office are still trying to determine how things will shake out with them.

District Attorney Greg Edwards, who is a constitutional officer elected by the people of Dougherty County, supervises more than 40 county employees who would be required to participate in the furlough days and under the current plan would all be furloughed on the same day.

Since state law requires courts to be in session during certain periods, Edwards says he's concerned that if he has to furlough his employees all on the same day, they could miss court.

"Certain court terms are set by law and they must be adhered to by the statutes," Edwards said. "So we're looking at that and will speak with the chief judge and the other judges about it."

Edwards, whose office employees both state and county-funded employees, has seen some of his employees endure the furlough system for a while. Edwards also said that he's concerned about the impact the furloughs will have on his staff's ability to meet constitutional mandates to bring cases to term on time.

"I can't lose my people for that kind of time," Edwards said. "We're required to meet certain time obligations and are still researching how it will affect our ability to bring cases to term."

The furloughs come as tax officials predict that the county tax digest -- the list and values of properties currently paying property tax -- will shrink by $500,000 during the next fiscal year.

That means that unless local government leaders in the city, county and school board raise taxes, all will have a smaller pot of money from which to pull to operate.

For the Dougherty County Commission, the majority of its operating revenue comes from property taxes -- 56 percent to be exact, although it only takes in roughly 30 percent of the property tax pie within the city and 31 percent in the unincorporated area. The remainder comes from sales tax and fines, and fees and forfeitures, which are both down.

Aggravating the furlough announcement is a hike in health insurance premiums for county employees that was adopted Monday that will send some premiums skyrocketing.

Assistant County Administrator Mike McCoy said that while the "aggregate percentage increase for county employee health plan premiums is 23 percent," some employees, depending on the plan they choose, will see a spike nearing 60 percent or higher beginning July 1. The range in dollars of that increase, McCoy said, span from $24 per month up to more than $170 per month.

With both property taxes and sales taxes down, Finance Committee Chairman and Dougherty County Commissioner Lamar Hudgins said that there are few options left for government leaders.

"Believe me, this is a last resort," Hudgins said. "Our employees are what keeps the county running and we delayed it for as long as we could, but this looks to be the way we have to go."

The furloughs will amount to a 4.6 percent pay cut for all county employees and are estimated to save the county roughly $1 million.

Hudgins said that he will speak with other commissioners before the budget is approved to ensure that the 4.6 percent pay cut isn't limited to merely county employees, but extends to the commissioners themselves as well.

"I can only speak for myself, but I would imagine that the rest of them would go along with it," Hudgins said. "We can't morally ask our employees to take a pay cut and not take one ourselves."