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Lee officials: County budget fair

LEESBURG, Ga. -- While Lee County officials' budget showdown with Sheriff Reggie Rachals and his deputies turned out to be the most compelling story of the recent six days of budget hearings conducted by the Lee County Commission's Finance Committee, the key member of that committee said this week the process went as smoothly as expected.

Redbone Commissioner Bill Williams, himself a CPA, said Monday he considers the finalized $20,795,942 budget a fair one.

"Other than the items we weren't able to get for the Sheriff's Department, I can't think of anything huge that we weren't able to get in the budget," Williams said. "I think the budget is very fair. We would have loved to have gotten more of the things the sheriff asked for, but we just couldn't do that and balance the budget in this economy.

"Now that we've finalized the budget with a few minor changes, we've found that we will be able to give our employees a 3 percent cost-of-living increase. That will be effective Oct. 1 and includes all county employees."

Rachals and Chief Deputy Lewis Harris criticized the commission's plans to build a library/conference center off U.S. Highway 82, a facility that will be built utilizing some $3.2 million in voter-approved special-purpose local-option sales tax funds and $2 million in state bonds. Rachals said public safety needs were more important at this time.

"I am all for education, 100 percent for it," the sheriff said during Thursday's budget hearings. "In fact, if not for education, our jail would stay full. But we need to take a closer look at where our money is going. We've got more than $3 million going into this library when we have serious public safety needs."

Williams reiterated Monday a point he'd made in response to Rachals' and Harris' comments.

"I think we've been very fair with the Sheriff's Department," the commissioner said. "The last two years we've added 15 additional public safety employees. They come with an additional cost of $587,000 a year.

"We've beefed up the Sheriff's Department."

The final budget, which is on display now at the county clerk's office in the County Administration Building and at the Leesburg branch of the Lee County Library, includes funding for only one new employee: a Code Enforcement officer to work with Jim Wright, the county's lone code enforcer.

"Jim's been getting by for a while now, but he's at his breaking point," Commission Chairman and Finance Committee member Ed Duffy said during the hearing. "We cannot ask him to continue without more help."

County Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander, under whom Code Enforcement serves, asked the Finance Committee to hold off hiring the new Code officer so that he or she might be brought on at a higher salary than budgeted ($13.18 an hour), but committee members said they'd rather advertise the position and move forward with interviewing candidates.

"If Jim's not satisfied with (the candidates), I'd like for him to be able to turn them down until we find the person that is the right fit for the position," Alexander said.

Duffy, meanwhile, reiterated Tuesday the Finance Committee's efforts to balance the budget without raising the county's tax millage rate.

"Even in this economy, we were able to cut more than $200,000 from last year's budget," he said. "And I know I'm repeating myself, but we balanced the budget with no tax increases, no layoffs and a 3 percent cost-of-living increase.

"I think it says something for the county that in this economy, we've given our employees a 16.2 percent pay increase over the last four years."

The complete Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing to discuss the proposed budget June 14 at its monthly work session, which starts at 6 p.m. at the T. Page Tharp Governmental Building.