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City, county face budget challenges

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. The Finance Committee, which also includes Commissioner John Hayes, has been meeting regularly to talk about individual departments' budget needs.

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. The Finance Committee, which also includes Commissioner John Hayes, has been meeting regularly to talk about individual departments' budget needs.

ALBANY, Ga. -- There's a general feeling among officials whose offices take up the fifth floor of the downtown Government Center that this year's budget process may be the most closely scrutinized of their tenure.

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Meredith Lipson with the Mauldin & Jenkins CPA firm presents findings from the city of Albany's FY 2012 audit during last week's Albany City Commission pre-briefing.

As Dougherty County Administrator Richard Crowdis notes, the "low-hanging fruit" of budget cuts has been picked. Now county and city of Albany leaders have to make some hard decisions that will not only impact the services provided citizens in the community, they could impact employees' jobs.

"We're already closely scrutinizing our personnel," City Manager James Taylor said. "We've started by not rehiring to fill nonessential vacancies, but I don't know at this point if that will be enough. We hate to use those ugly words (job cuts), but we might have to."

The combined city and county budgets account for a little less than $200 million in taxpayer money used for such services as garbage collection, road repairs, police and fire protection, EMS services and planning. But with a crippling recession lingering in the region, the taxpayers who are footing the bill are demanding wiser use of the funding.

"People say 'You have to cut back like we do,'" Crowdis said. "What they don't seem to consider is that demand (for services) does not go down in a recession. We don't have less people coming to the tax office, to the courts, getting birth certificates and marriage licenses. The miles of pavement and the drainage ditches in the county haven't shrunk.

"If we cut back on personnel and suddenly the lines of people waiting for services are out the door, the citizens want to know why. That doesn't mean we can't scale back, but we have to do it cautiously."

WAKEUP CALL FOR CITY

City officials got a sobering shot of reality during a pre-briefing before their Tuesday business meeting. Meredith Lipson with the Mauldin & Jenkins CPA firm told city officials that while their finances had a "clean" finding in the firm's audit for Fiscal Year 2012, the city had more total expenditures ($58 million) than revenue it had generated ($57 million).

"I'm hoping that's a wakeup call," Taylor said of the audit. "I'm hoping that information did not get lost on our commissioners. I continue to restate to them what should be obvious: You can't continue to spend more than you take in and expect not to go broke."

Taylor said he's early in the process of putting together the city's Fiscal Year 2014 budget plan, but he says he has a four-tiered approach that he hopes will stop the flow of red ink. That plan:

  • Paint a definite picture of the fiscal challenges the city has.
  • Present areas that have an opportunity to generate additional revenue short of raising property taxes.
  • Present ways to save money.
  • Come up with a list of possible money-saving ideas, determine which ones the majority of the commission will support and go after them.

"As you could see this year, if the majority of the commission is not willing to support these ideas, it's useless to pursue them," said Taylor, who in the last four months offered ways to cut some $3 million from the city's budget, only to have the commission vote against the measures.

The city manager said he's tasking staff with finding creative and outside-the-box ways to cut costs, mentioning such ideas as closing or reducing use of the Albany Civic Center, closing certain gyms and community centers in the city or arranging schedules so that less staff can manage them, closing seldom-used community policing centers, selling or even giving city parks to adjacent property owners, privatizing or dramatically changing management of the city cemetery.

"You go by those community policing centers at any random time, and there's a good chance nobody is there," Taylor said. "And they're located on potentially highly commercial plots. Why couldn't we put them on the market and have a more mobile policing center?

"And at the cemetery, citizens are getting perpetual care for a very low cost. If everyone took care of their plot, that would be one thing. But they don't, and that's a lot of grass to cut. If we don't get out of the cemetery business, we might look at taking the grass out and putting down gravel to cut maintenance costs."

Taylor said the seven-person City Commission is going to have to make some decisions that may not be popular with some of their constituents.

"I can show (commissioners) the benefits, and I can show them what might happen in the future if they don't (follow through on recommendations)," the city manager said. "But I don't get a vote. I don't believe we're going to see a return anytime soon to those days when the city was flush with funding, so we're going to have to get creative and make some bold moves.

"I keep pointing out that we have sources of income right now -- the MEAG credits, a decent-sized fund balance and an enterprise fund -- that are bringing in between $5 million and $6 million that we won't have in three or four years. And the other night I had an epiphany: Not only will the city no longer get MEAG credits, Water, Gas & Light won't either. We have to start preparing now."

COUNTY'S TOUGH LESSONS

Forced to raise taxes in the county's special unincorporated district for the first time in a decade, Dougherty County commissioners have taken a proactive approach in buiulding toward their FY 2014 budget. Under orders from Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard and under the guidance of Crowdis, the county's Finance Committee has met with department managers and elected department heads on an almost weekly basis to get a better grasp of budgetary needs.

"We're different from the city because 53 percent of our budget goes to elected offices," Crowdis said. "Counties are like subcultures of the state, and with elected offices there are specific mandated expenditures that we must make. There are certain things the clerks and judges and health department and the sheriff's office are mandated to have, and those fall under our budget."

The Finance Committee -- Commissioners Lamar Hudgins, John Hayes and Ewell Lyle -- have been meeting with department managers to discuss their specific budget needs, a process that Sinyard said should prove beneficial.

"The purpose of these meetings is for our folks to hear and understand the specific needs of each (department's) individual budgets," the commission chairman said. "With no apparent significant increase in revenue projected, we're going to have to spend the money we have wisely and fund the right things.

"We took a beating during last year's budget process, so we've made looking at ways to tighten our budget our primary focus this year. The economic climate is difficult right now, so we're going to analyze every dollar we spend to make sure we have a balanced budget and no new taxes."

Crowdis distributed budget forms to department managers Jan. 17, and each will submit budget requests to Finance Director Martha Hendley by March 4. Those managers, and elected officials who are heads of various departments, will meet with Crowdis on an individual basis, and he will present an initial budget to the Finance Committee May 6.

That committee will fine-tune the budget and present it to the entire commission June 3. Once final tweaks are made, the budget will be adopted at a called meeting June 24.

"I think these meetings we're having allow us to make this process even more fluid," Hudgins, the Finance Committee's chairman, said. "And where we get a clearer understanding of each department head's needs, I think they also get a better picture of what we're working under.

"I think we'll get a clearer understanding of where we are once we get our audit report. We're hoping that increased revenues will mean a positive audit."

Crowdis said preliminary figures indicate the county will have to transfer considerably less than the $1.99 million from reserves it had drawn into the budget to take care of projected shortfalls.

"I feel like we're going to come out much better in the audit than we had projected," the county administrator said. "But we always try to project revenue and expenditures conservatively. Still, we know that the economy ebbs and flows in cycles, that while we may have some good years, there is going to be a recession down the road.

"That 'do more with less' thing is easy to say but a lot more difficult to do. We have to be able to balance the level of services we provide with the mandated costs of the elected offices we finance. Our departments have to get used to the fact that there is only so much money to go around."

Comments

FryarTuk 1 year, 2 months ago

Let me see if I can help: 1. consolidate the city and county eliminate one entire layer of feudal bureaucracy. 2. start by unifying all the law enforcement agencies and services, let the sheriff be civil, jail and courthouse; combine the county police, city department and the silly school police into a single force with one administrative structure. The community is too small for all of the feudal bureaucracies. 3. do not spend any more money from MEAG funds except on the infrastucture of WG&L. 4. authorize WG&L to expand their fiberoptic network to their entire service area (perhaps expand it) to provide cable service for fees; 5. leave WG&L alone if you jackasses in the city keep on you will have a quintupled mess, you've done so well with the municipal. 6. eliminate further donation (illegalBTW) to non-profit organizations (yes, all of them). 7. incorporate the Chehaw Oversight Board into a non-profit community corporation, and deed the animal park over to them. Watch it grow! 8. Fire all of the lawyers. Put a firm on retainer, call him or her when needed. Quit using them as PR or a third rail in government. They have been institutionalized insofar as your dependence and budgets are concerned. The county lawyer thinks he runs the courts and county. Don't need another level of management. 8. set a target date for vehicles to be run on CNG and move forward. You will save a great deal on petroleum and vehicle maintenance plus help improve quality of air - a threefur. 9. no out of town trips unless supboena's are issued. All travel allowances are frozen. 10. DCSS adopt a rule that only degrees from legitimate institutions will be approved for hiring and advancement. We are paying huge sums of money for Sunset U. diplomas which have nothing to do with education services to the students. Well, there you have it. A few concrete suggestions to get our leaders leading. It's more like the blind leading the blind really.

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B4it 1 year, 2 months ago

Fryar... now that is something we can agree on. Good job of listing potential solutions.

Finance Committee Chairman Lamar Hudgins is way past his time and contributes nothing to find any financial solutions for the County. Lamar should be removed as chairman of the Finance Committee for his past budgeting failures (e.g. - using reserve funds to balance the budget for 6 years in a row). There has been no budgetary direction to the County Administrator. Lamar depends on Richard to present the budget needs and then he presents them to the Commissioners for a vote.

James Taylor seems to know what it takes to reduce expenses, but most of the City Commissioners don't want to take any flack from the special interest groups. Until the citizens start voting some these "self righteous do nothings" out of office, it will be more of the same until drastic consequences take place.

The School Board is finally starting to get it and take some action. We can only hope this trend will continue and rub off on the City and County Commissioners.

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tiger12 1 year, 2 months ago

FryarTuk obviously has a level of familiarity with local politics that I do not have. I agree with the overall theme though. Traditional, hierarchical organizational structure is not only expensive to maintain, it's a ripe environment for the type of parochial activities one can commonly see in some local government officials and organizations. As FryarTuk alluded to, restructuring into a flatter, more flexible and responsive governing body is the key. This is a proven commercial strategy that certainly warrants looking into. Here's the kicker.....this is a huge task that will require servant leadership. The needs of the constituency must come before any personal or organizational agendas. Is there anyone in any of the local government bodies who are willing and able to do this? I don't know, but I do no what I'm going to do. I'm going the do the best thing in times like these; I'm going to pray to the Father that he put conviction in our leaders' hearts to do that which is right.

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dingleberry 1 year, 2 months ago

No one likes to talk about it but every organization that has people has too many people for the work required. For the long term, what is needed is a manpower study. What is also needed, again an effort not doable for this budget, is an operational audit which looks at matters such economy and efficiency and evaluates how management is doing its job. Financial audits like that mentioned in the article do not cover these matters and generally produce nothing of value--DCSS and its annual audit by the state auditors being the poster child for nothing of value resulting from audit work.

If work described above had already been done, perhaps the mess we are now in would be less significant. It has to be done for the future and the supposed "lean times" are perhaps a good time to start the process since government claims to have already removed the "low hanging fruit".

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whattheheck 1 year, 2 months ago

Again, our elected officials are forcing us into a "sudden death" situation, our own "fiscal cliff" at the local level. Listen, we have been working towards money problems for years before the recession started. No one in elected government at any level seems willing to face the future until it is staring us in the face and then we start the knee jerks.

Jim Taylor seems to be the only person who has a feel for the magnitude of the problem and speaks out--and he gets zero help in solving money issues from the commission. Both commissions could put on clown suits and big rubber noses and take their shows on the road. It's time to put on the big boy britches and take out the Kabar cause this one isn't going away. Local monies from the taxpayers have been maximized unless we are willing to formally kill what is left of Albany. Cut, reduce, and eliminate. And when the groups representing the poor and downtrodden shuffle the deck and play the race card, when services aren't expanded and cuts are made, make them understand the word "no",

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FryarTuk 1 year, 2 months ago

"(Our elected officials) have been working towards money problems for years . . ." What a true statement this is. Al Lott and Willie Adams added much unnecessary expenses to our city budget including consultants, housing boondoggles and multiple unneeded employees. I remember one allocation by Ethical Al of $40,000 for one of Postel'ls buddies to be used to rennovate a private business. The Herald learned of the deal and as a result of publicizing it was blocked.

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ustaknow 1 year, 2 months ago

A must read: " On Jan. 2, 2009, 18 days before the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama, the fortuitously named Luis Fortuno assumed office in Puerto Rico, the first Republican governor in 50 years.

“We were closer to the abyss than most states,” Mr. Fortuno recalled in a recent interview with Deroy Murdock, a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service and a contributing editor with National Review online.

“When I came into office, we were facing not just the worst recession since the Thirties, but the worst budget deficit in America, proportionally. We were literally broke. We did not have enough money to meet our first payroll,” Mr. Fortuno, 51, recalled. “We had to take out a loan to meet it.” (At that point, he added, “my wife asked me if we could ask for a recount.”)

What to do? Facing a $3.3-billion deficit, Mr. Fortuno did something almost unprecedented in contemporary public finance: “We cut expenses.” He took a 10-per-cent pay cut; senior bureaucrats got a 5-per-cent reduction. He cut 20,000 public sector jobs permanently and more temporarily – saving more than $900-million. In his first year in office, he slashed government spending, in absolute dollars, by 20 per cent.

Mr. Fortuno also cut taxes. He lowered the corporate tax rate to 30 per cent from 41 per cent (with further cuts coming in each of the next two years). Personal income tax rates dropped by 25 per cent (with further cuts coming in each of the next five years).

He gave homeowners a five-year property tax holiday, and scrapped capital gains and death taxes. These reforms put a floor under property values. In 2011, existing home sales increased by 35 per cent (compared with an average decline of 7.9 per cent in the continental states); new-home sales increased by 92 per cent (compared with an average decline of 9.9 per cent in the continental states).

To do anything in the old economy, Mr. Fortuno said, “You needed to obtain 28 permits … and go to 20-plus different agencies to do that.” Today, you need go to only one agency for a permit, “or you can go to PR.gov and get it online.”

In another fundamental reform, he transferred public sector workers from “old-fashioned, statist defined-benefit pensions” to “market-friendly, defined-contribution pensions.”

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ustaknow 1 year, 2 months ago

Continued: The transformation of Puerto Rico’s dysfunctional economy has begun to attract attention. Retailers such as Nordstom, PetSmart, Saks Fifth Avenue and Victoria’s Secret have announced store openings in San Juan in 2012. Honeywell International and Merck & Co. have announced expansion of their manufacturing operations on the island.

Standard & Poor’s has upgraded Puerto Rico’s credit rating to “positive” from “stable” – its first upgrade in 28 years. Moody’s took Puerto Rico bonds back to triple-A, the highest rating in 35 years. “We are moving in the right direction,” Mr. Fortuno said. “So we can keep lowering taxes.”

In three years, Puerto Rico’s budget deficit has been reduced to $600-million from $3.3-billion. In 2009, its deficit equalled 44 per cent of its revenue; in 2011, it stands at 7 per cent. In 2009, as a ratio of deficit to revenue, Puerto Rico ranked 51st among American states, at the bottom of the pack. In 2011, it ranked 15th.

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whattheheck 1 year, 2 months ago

To keep from phooting in the dark on part of this issue, the City's 2013 budget is at the link below:

http://www.albany.ga.us/content/1798/2879/2955/3246/default.aspx

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wonderbread 1 year, 2 months ago

Taylor needs to look in the mirror! He was there as an Assistant City Manager while the staff built up their employees from 860 to 925. The staff recommended Pay Study 1, Pay Study 2, and a 2% COLA and he supported it. There goes 2/3 of the MEAG money off the top! He knows that the growth of employees is the primary fiscal problem. Yet instead of making the tough decisions, he comes to the Commission and asks to cut Retirees' pay, 4th of July fireworks, the Flint Riverquarium, and, raise taxes. He tries to placate the staff under him while they manipulate. The City staff generally are unconcerned about the citizens they work for. They are bureaucrats who put themselves first. When Taylor wakes up and realizes that he and his employees are the root of City fiscal problems, he will be able to better deal with the situation.

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