ALBANY — City Manager James Taylor warned Albany City Commissioners Tuesday that they'd have to "eliminate some sacred cows" if they're serious about returning fiscal responsibility to city government.
Taylor delivered the assessment after the commission's work session Tuesday morning as a vital part of his five-year plan for the city.
"There have to be some hard decisions made," Taylor said after his plan was given unanimous tentative approval by the commission. "And I think these commissioners know they're going to have to make those decisions. They know we can't go back to the tax-increase table — I know I don't want to go there — and to keep from doing that, they've got six to eight months to make changes.
"If they don't, we'll be right back here at the same place again next year."
Taylor's plan review included an overview of the causes for the city's economic woes, which led to "borrowing" almost $7 million from the MEAG fund ($3 million), from the city's sewer enterprise fund ($2 million) and from reserves ($1.8 million) to balance the Fiscal Year 2014 budget, and possible action that might be taken to address those woes.
The city manager pulled few punches.
"There has to be one person in charge of an organization," he said, referencing the city's often contentious relationship with the Water, Gas & Light Commission. "We have to eliminate the dual policies of city entities and provide consistent leadership, not fragmented management. It's a simple business decision."
He also told board members they'd have to do a better job of planning, rather than making "political-based decisions."
"For example, look at the (recently built) city gateways," he said. "They look really good, but there are pretty substantial maintenance and management costs that weren't considered before they were built. I'm having to deal with those now. Those kinds of things need to be considered before we do things, not after.
"And I personally think we ought to get out of the cemetery business. We're not getting a return near the maintenance costs. There are a lot of things this city is financially responsible for that are not on the books. And, frankly, the city is not getting what it deserves from me because I'm spending so much of my time doing things that don't matter."
Taylor set a goal of reducing costs in the city by a minimum of $5 million a year over the course of the five-year plan. Yet he warned that doing so will be even more difficult given some of the issues facing the city.
"Our pension/retirement fund is a $160 million risk that's out there, and our current sick leave policy is a great liability," he said. "Sanitary and stormwater sewer separation is a $100 million project and now that T-SPLOST has failed, we'll need a minimum of $4 million a year to maintain streets in the city.
"We're going to have to look at our fee and rate structure to make sure we're recouping our costs, our personnel structure — because my plan right now is to reduce our work force by 60 people over the next five years — and we'll have to reduce our recreation programs, reduce fuel consumption, insist that property owners take control of their own property. We just can't be everything to everybody any longer."
Mayor Dorothy Hubbard said city officials would have to do a selling job to meet some of the goals in Taylor's plan.
"We have to make sure people understand what we're giving up and why," she said.
Ward 3 Commissioner Chris Pike said city residents would have to play a part in the austerity plan as well.
"Folks need to recognize that we all have a stake in this," he said. "And we have to reprioritize. We spend $15 million in this community to lock people up, and no one bats an eye. But we spend only $250,000 on economic development. That shows where our priorities are."
The bottom line, Taylor said, is using common sense while making decisions that will impact the economic future of the city.
"There are some things we can't do anything about right now," he said. "But there are things we can do. We went from 872 employees to 930 in the last three years — during one of the worst economic downturns ever — and that's not good business.
"I think this board knows we can't just sit around this table and pretend we don't know what's going on. We can't just say, 'We'll use money from our reserves and everything will be all right.' They won't. A couple of big items, and the reserves are gone. And in 2016, the MEAG money goes away. We've got to prepare."