From left, Dougherty County Commissioners Lamar Hudgins and Ewell Lyle, who are members of the commission's Finance Committee, and Dougherty County Administrator Richard Crowdis prepare for a meeting with one of the county's department managers on Jan. 26, 2013. The county is looking at tightening its belt in FY 2014 after raising tax on unincorporated parts of the county last year. (Outlook 2013)
ALBANY, Ga. — In one ear, Albany and Dougherty County officials are hearing the latest financial news from the state: things like the increase in tax revenues of more than 10 percent last month as compared to January of a year ago.
And while that siren song no doubt brings with it a measure of hope, perhaps even a hint that decreasing finances are about to take a swing in the other direction, there’s a more insistent cry in the other ear, one that can’t be ignored. It’s the battle cry of weary taxpayers insisting, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
If their early actions in preparation for Fiscal Year 2014 budget are any indication, there’s no question which ear local officials are listening to.
“Those days of everyone being flush, of plenty of money to go around for everyone, are over,” Albany City Manager James Taylor said as he talked about the city’s $100 million-plus budget. “We have to start looking at cuts, at ways to reduce our budget. I hate to even think about those ugly words ‘reduction in force,’ but we can’t discount any options at this point.”
County officials are equally as wary.
“The economy tends to run in cycles,” Dougherty Administrator Richard Crowdis said. “Even if we start to get more positive economic news, we have to keep our budget as lean as possible. We’ve already gathered all the low-hanging fruit in this process. We have to start looking at deeper cuts.”
Dougherty County officials started taking a closer look at their budget as soon as they signed off on the FY 2013 budget, which for the first time in a decade included a tax increase in the county’s special unincorporated tax district. Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard charged the county’s Finance Committee — including Chairman Lamar Hudgins, John Hayes and Ewell Lyle — with taking a line-by-line look at the county’s budget ahead of developing the ‘14 spending plan.
That committee and Crowdis have been meeting almost weekly with department managers and elected officials to discuss their individual budgets and to develop a strategy to keep each as tight as possible.
“I think (the Finance Committee meetings) are going to have an impact,” Sinyard said. “It gives (commissioners) a better understanding of each department’s budget, but I also believe it helps (department heads and elected officials whose budgets are partially or fully funded by the county) see what the county is facing as it puts together its budget.”
The county is pinning hopes of increasing local economic development activity by making improvements on an industrial park in East Albany, off U.S. Highway 82. Funding has already been appropriated (from special-purpose local-options sales tax) for infrastructure upgrades such as running sewer lines to the property.
“That industrial park could have a significant impact here in our region,” Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission President Ted Clem said. “It will provide (prospective) businesses a location that gives them the option of making an immediate move. The sewer extension (already approved by the city and county) is a big step.”
Taylor has warned city department heads that an across-the-board 10 percent cut may be necessary this year. City Finance Director Kris Newton said that directive has not yet been officially handed down, but it looms over the budget process.
“It’s early in the process, and we’re still looking at places where me might make some gains or some cuts,” she said. “We’ve asked (department heads) to look for 10 percent cuts as they put their proposals together. We’ll have to see where we are a little further into the process.”
Unfortunately for city department managers, they’ll go into the process at a financial disadvantage. The city’s worker’s compensation fund, which has had enough in reserves to fund itself for years, is now nearing a zero balance, so each department will have to figure worker’s comp funding into its budget.
Still city leaders are looking for ways to bring in new revenue, through increased fees, through cutting back on donations to outside agencies and by reviewing all the positions in their department.
“There are some things we’ve tried not to touch in the past that are no longer off-limits,” Newton said. “This year, everything’s on the table.”
Even as Gov. Nathan Deal and other state officials tout the good financial news in the state in its efforts to claw its way out of the lingering economic recession, Albany and Dougherty County officials are heeding the message of their citizens and looking for ways to present as lean a budget as possible. For those who’ve heard their citizens’ cries, there’s simply no other choice.
“We can’t really listen to what the folks at the Capital are saying,” Newton said. “They’re basing a lot of their numbers on projections and on some things that are still up in the air right now. We can’t afford to do that. We have to focus on the reality that’s in front of us. And where the state is saying their revenues are up significantly, they’re actually down here a little from last year.
“That’s our reality.”