Lee County budget 'cut to the bone'

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

LEESBURG, Ga. -- If Lee County citizens are worried that the $3.6 million overage that Lee Commissioners are working to trim from the Fiscal Year 2011 budget will result in higher taxes, they can take to heart the words of Commissioner Betty Johnson.

While Johnson's colleague, Finance Committee member and CPA Bill Williams, answered a question about increased taxes during a budget hearing Friday by saying, "We're going into the process with the idea that we're not going to raise taxes ..." Johnson interjected her own assessment.

"We ain't going to," she said.

Such determination makes the Board of Commissioners' job that much tougher, as budget requests from department heads left the county leaders with a whole lot of cutting to do on a budget about which Williams noted, "We've already cut to the bone."

The Commission took a line-by-line look at departmental budget requests in meetings Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and has planned four more days of meetings as its members work to balance the expected $21 million financial plan. Commission Chair -- and Finance Committee member -- Ed Duffy said the cooperation of department heads makes the process a little less painful.

"Every one of our officials realizes what we're trying to do," Duffy said Friday. "And we've had the full cooperation of every department head we've met with. They realize what we're up against."

The Finance Committee/Commission has met so far with department heads in the Tax Commission Office, County Administrator Alan Ours, its Information Technology department, Utilities Billing, Emergency Medical Services, the Clerk of Superior Court's office, the Utilities Authority, the Tax Assessor's Office, the Coroner's Office and the Fire Department.

"It's been a good process so far, but we've got a long ways to go," Williams said. "Our biggest concern is that revenues are down and we've got requests for $600,000 for the Smithville Fire/EMS Station and increases totaling $1.5 million from the sheriff and the jail.

"This is a give-and-take process, and I think the department heads know going in we're not going to be able to give them everything they ask for. This just is not the right time to raise taxes; everyone's hurting right now. We have to continue to do more with less, but at some point something's going to have to give."

Joe Wright, chief appraiser in the county Tax Assessor's office, said it's going to have to give soon if his office hopes to stay in compliance with new state regulations. He asked for two new employees to fill voids in his office, but was tentatively given only one for half a year.

When Wright expressed frustration at the initial budget numbers, Williams noted, "Even with the cuts we're making in your requests, we've increase your budget (from FY '10) by $109,000."

Wright replied, "At what point does the reality of running a multimillion-dollar business trump the political issues and you raise the millage rate to meet the county's needs?"

Williams said before the meeting started that funding all the budget requests sought by department heads would necessitate a 4 mil tax increase.

Williams later asked Fire Chief James Howell if it was feasible to utilize volunteer firefighters out of Smithville to cut the costs of manning that station, and Howell said he'd be willing to try and recruit volunteers.

"I started my career in Leesburg as a volunteer, so you know my heart's in it," Howell said. "But people today are not willing to give up the time it takes to do this job well on a volunteer basis. I'm certainly 100 percent game to try and recruit a volunteer class, but it's just so hard to find them and train them."

Ours asked Howell if grants were available to fund some of the equipment he sought, and Howell replied, "They're getting harder and harder to come by."

While some questions surrounding the fire chief's 2010-2011 needs remain in limbo at this time, Duffy said the current proposed budget numbers for the fire department stood at $356,323 more than last year.

County Finance Director Heather Kittrell said she's not surprised department heads have advocated strongly for their budget requests.

"These are people who are passionate about their departments, and they know what it takes to do their jobs," she said. "It's tough on them when they see that the money they need is not available, but they came into the process knowing what to expect."

The budget hearings will continue Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of next week and on May 19 before a final version is brought before the full Commission for approval.