RiverQuarium funding discussions begin

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- Local government leaders heard a pitch for another round of funding from the head of the Flint RiverQuarium Monday, who offered to cut his request for tax dollars by 20 percent in an effort to help the county cope with declining revenues.

Even with the cut, which would shrink his appropriations from the Dougherty County Commission by $50,000, commissioners are finding the idea of another round of funding increasingly hard to swallow, given the measure of cuts they're planning upon their own employees.

"It's going to be a tough decision," Dougherty County Commission Finance Committee Chairman Lamar Hudgins said. "How can we justify furloughs for our own employees and, at the same time, hand out $200,000 or $250,000 to the RiverQuarium? I just don't know."

Despite the tough sell, RiverQuarium CEO Scott Loehr was at the committee table Monday morning lobbying commissioners to include the money -- which is typically 13 percent of the Riverquarium's total operating budget -- in the FY 2011 budget, which goes into effect July 1.

"All of us who live in this community, who love this community, understand fully the realization that the tax base is eroding and revenues are down," Loehr said. "... We think by working with the Commission and taking this reduction, we can stave off deeper cuts and benefit everyone in the long haul."

Loehr also pointed to the cost-cutting measures the RiverQuarium has undertaken under his leadership as further evidence that, like the county, he too is trying to cope with what he said was the "worst recession this country has seen in the last 80 years or so."

According to Loehr, the RiverQuarium budget has been trimmed by $690,000 over the last five years, while increasing the amount of new revenue from private gifts, donations and grants it's accepted by $750,000.

The proposed funding from the county, which last year was $250,000, has not been worked into County Administrator Richard Crowdis' proposed budget and would likely require that the county pull the money from a dwindling reserve fund.

During Crowdis' presentation of the general fund budget following Loehr's presentation, committee members -- Hudgins, Commissioners John Hayes, Chuck Lingle and Gloria Gaines -- were given dire news in terms of the state of the county's reserve fund.

That fund, which by general practice and rule of the Commission is kept at a level equal to at least three months' worth of operating expenses, will fall below that threshold in FY 2012, which would begin July 1, 2011, if the county continues using it to balance the budget.

More importantly, if that threshold is breached, the county would also struggle to have enough cash on hand during the financially lean months between tax seasons to keep the government running and would likely have to get a tax anticipation loan to carry it through.

Some commissioners have raised concerns in past years about the speed in which the RiverQuarium is becoming self-sufficient -- a goal many elected officials believe is the ultimate aim of the quasi-educational and entertainment attraction.

"I know we've talked in the past of this notion of self-sufficiency. If that means less government money, then we are headed in that direction. But if we're talking about self-sufficiency in terms of sustaining ourselves solely on admissions, then that is a fallacy," Loehr said. "Entities like ours survive on many revenue streams."