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Proposed Lee budget 'incredibly similar' to existing plan

LEESBURG. Ga. -- Greg Frich, a first-year Lee County commissioner representing District 5, is no stranger to budgets.

In his current job, Frich is responsible for a $250 million budget. During his days in the U.S. Marine Corps, Frich handled a budget of about $1.3 billion.

Despite that experience, Frich said his service as chairman of the Lee County Commission's Budget Committee was "challenging." The committee has proposed a Fiscal Year 2013-14 budget of $22,042,210 -- down about $80,000 from the current budget.

"I think it's a reasonable budget in these economic times," Frich said Thursday. "All the department heads and constitutional officers understood our budget constraints since there is no significant increase in revenue anticipated.

"We had to prioritize our needs, and that's always a difficult process."

Frich said the County Commission agreed on a strategic decision not to add any personnel to the county's payroll, despite requests from several departments.

"We believed that if we were to make additional hires, we'd likely see furloughs next," Frich said.

He said the budget does not include a pay increase for county employees for the budget year beginning July 1. County Commission Chairman Rick Muggridge said that 3 percent pay increases in three of the past four years have put county employees at a fair compensation level.

With the attention away from county salaries, Frich said the budget committee focused on infrastructure and equipment needs. For example, he pointed to funds allocated for a new roof for a gymnasium near the county offices that serves the community in a variety of ways.

"It's a gathering place in inclement weather; it's used for basketball, for pre-school registration and other things," he said. "The community uses that building a lot, so we have to make sure it's available for years to come."

Frich said the new budget, while not funding any additional officers for the Sheriff's Department, includes funds for a second fingerprinting machine, Tasers, cameras and training. He said the fingerprinting machine will be placed in the jail lobby for people who come in for background checks for jobs and handgun permits.

Making this year's budget process difficult, Frich says, was a decrease in some revenue streams.

He said the county is realizing less revenue due to the change in auto taxes, which has eliminated the "birthday tax" when citizens purchase auto decals each year. Now, the sales tax at the point of purchase provides that funding for local governments.

Frich estimates that revenue from the auto tax is down 10 to 20 percent.

"We're still working with the state on this, and we're supposed to see a balancing of deficiencies we have," he said.

The budget is expected to be approved by the entire County Commission at its 6 p.m. meeting on June 25.

Setting the tax millage rate is still a couple of months away, but Frich said he does not expect an increase in the amount that property owners will have to pay.

Muggridge, who served with Frich on the budget committee, said the upcoming budget will look "incredibly similar" to the current spending plan.

"We held the line on the number of employees, but we tried to meet the needs for technology and software that would help employees do their jobs better," the commission chairman said.

Lynn Taylor, the county's interim administrator who is serving through October, echoed Frich's assessment when she called the budget "reasonable in these economic times."

Frich, who volunteered for the Budget Committee duty, said one of his major goals this year was to "intimately involve each department head and constitutional officer in developing their budgets."

"I'm satisfied we did that and plan on making further improvements in that process," he said. "In fact, we're working now on the next budget. I think that's the right approach and maximizes efficiencies."