ALBANY After learning Monday that the city's financial future could include a 1.33 mil tax increase for property owners, Albany City Commissioners began working to cut spending in hopes finding $2 million that will allow them to avoid raising taxes.
Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta started the discussion by suggesting that the city commission should form a joint task force along with the board members of the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission to explore duplication of services that exist between the two.
The city and WG&L each have their own finance department, human resources department, information technology department, fleet maintenance department and contracting department.
Marietta's recommendation is for Mayor Dorothy Hubbard, who is also the chairman of the WG&L Commission, to offer a resolution for both the city commission and the WG&L board to work together to find out where possible cost savings exist between the two organizations.
"I really think we need to work from both sides of the street on this issue," Marietta said.
It was the first of many cost saving proposals Marietta suggested needed to be explored for their viability in an effort to avoid a property tax increase.
The Marietta Memorandum includes:
- reduction in the expense accounts of city commissioners.
- reduction or the elimination of overtime for city employees
- additional three percent, across-the-board spending cuts by all city departments
- elimination of city-owned cell phones and cellular plans.
- reduction in the amount of Local Option Sales Taxes that are dedicated to capital expenditures.
- explore the use of SPLOST funding for acquisition of the Heritage House property.
As a worst-case scenario, Marietta said he'd like city staff to research how much could be saved by offering a voluntary furlough program for city employees and a mandatory two-day-per-year furlough program.
"I'm not in favor of furloughs for city staff, but we need to explore all of our options," Marietta said. "I know that I'm not in favor of a tax increase. We're all still trying to recover from the recession and people don't need that right now. It's a statement that doesn't look good for our city and would be bad for economic development."
City Manager James Taylor told Marietta and the other commissioners that he could offer up a balanced budget without a tax increase, but he'd have to find somewhere to find $2 million.
"We could pull it from the sanitary sewer reserves or from the general fund's cash reserves, but we're at $8.6 million now, so that would have dire consequences for the future," Taylor said. "I'm trying to look 10 years down the road here. I don't want to raise taxes, but we're in an environment right now where we have to do something or face major problems down the road."
Ward III Commissioner Christopher Pike said that one of the city's first priorities should be to deal with the money that is coming in from the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia each year that has "artificially inflated" the city's budget.
"We're on a collision course here," Pike said. "We've got to stop subsidizing our budget with this MEAG money."
That money flows into the city's general fund at the rate of roughly $3 million per year. Another $3 million of that money goes to WG&L, and a third $3 million goes into an account that is to be used by a joint, Longterm Financial Planning Committee that consists of WG&L and City Commissioners.
Those funds, however, are set to run out by 2018.
Ward II Commissioner Ivey Hines said that getting out from under the MEAG funding problem was an immediate concern and, that as far as raising taxes go, better to raise taxes a small amount, than risk financial catastrophe.
"The people are going to talk about us if we raise taxes, but they'll talk about us worse if we bankrupt the city," Hines said. "We need to get off of (MEAG) as soon as possible."
Notably, under former city manager Alfred Lott, the city has used its share of the MEAG funds to fund the Albany Police Department's Gang Unit, and to expand the city's code enforcement department by nine officers.
When the funding runs out in 2018, those items funded by the MEAG money -- including the Gang Unit -- will have to funded by other sources or risk being dropped altogether, something Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff said can't be allowed to happen.
"For me public safety is number one. And I know there are a lot of people in this community who don't want a tax increase...I"m one of them," Langstaff said. "But when it comes to public safety, I will gladly accept an increase if it means cops and firefighters stay on the streets."