Dougherty finances still bleak

ALBANY, Ga. -- Some unexpected news on the county's revenue front returned something Tuesday to the faces of the Dougherty County Finance committee that had been all but absent during a harsh budget process -- smiles.

As county staff work to find ways to soften the blow of plunging tax revenues and a shrinking tax digest, there was word Tuesday that, through an unexpected uptick in sales tax revenues and creative budgeting, that the county could be poised to reap roughly $1.2 million.

County Administrator Richard Crowdis told the committee that the county's local option sales tax figures had climbed by roughly $500,000.

In addition to those funds, the commission is considering a recommendation by Crowdis and County Finance Director Karen Goff to cut the amount of money the county contributes to employees' deferred compensation, or retirement, accounts from $2.7 million this year to $2 million, saving $700,000.

Crowdis and Goff both told commissioners that they didn't believe shaving $700,000 off the contribution would have an immediate impact on the plans since the county already funds the plan at higher than 80 percent, which they say is unique for local governments following the recession.

In response to Commissioner John Hayes's inquiry, officials said the move could have a long term impact if the county isn't able to "make up" the payments within the next several years.

The $1.2 million would go a long way toward cutting the $2.6 million gap between projected revenues and projected spending in Fiscal Year 2012, which starts July 1. With the shifting of cash and the uptick in sales taxes, the difference could drop to $1.4 million.

"That's something to smile about," Committee Chairman Lamar Hudgins said. "We're closing the gap and that's important."

The county is still working to mine savings. After going over the budget figures for the proposed FY2012 fiscal year, one figure stood starkly above all the others -- the Dougherty County Jail's $14 million budget.

Now at 37 percent of the county's budget, the figure prompted some shock from the elected officials in the room.

"If this has ballooned to $14 million, someone ought to be talking about it, don't you think?" Hayes said. "I don't know what the answer is, but we've got to do something about this."

Crowdis said that the jail is bucking the trend that it had set over the last decade, which was to peak around 900 inmates before dropping back down.

But over the last two years, the valleys that had traditionally followed the peaks are nowhere to be found and the numbers are inexplicably heading upward.

The committee discussed possibly talking with the judges, District Attorney Greg Edwards and jail officials to ensure that alternative forms of sentencing were being properly used in order to try and bring the jail numbers down.