As a youth, James Taylor didn't expect his life to lead him to more than a quarter century in the Marine Corps or becoming the top administrator in Albany's City Hall. His leadership skills, however, created a successful career pathway.
ALBANY, Ga. -- While budget time is about self-preservation -- saving my job, funding my projects, purchasing my equipment, protecting my turf -- for many of the people he works with in the city's government, it's a much simpler process for Albany City Manager James Taylor.
For Taylor, putting together a budget is about responsibility to the people paying for it.
"If we had the money, we'd do what we could for every single organization that came to us asking for help," Taylor said as he talked about the city's $108 million Fiscal Year 2014 budget. "I know these are generally good people doing good things in the community.
"But the taxpayers of Albany pay us to fix potholes, to pave and repair roads, to collect garbage, to keep utilities running, to provide fire and police protection. We're responsible for doing these things with their dollars. And that's where our responsibility lies."
While Taylor is, by charter, on the hot seat when it comes to preparing the city's yearly budget, the responsibility for passing it and ultimately spending the dollars it contains lies with the seven members of the Albany City Commission.
One of those commissioners, Ward I's Jon Howard, is going through the process for the 19th time. When he was first elected to serve on the commission in 1993, the city's budget was around $75 million. No matter the escalating cost of doing city business, though, Howard said each member of the board will look to tweak the document prior to passage before a June 30 deadline.
"We're going to pass a balanced budget, but each of the commissioners has concerns that they will address before we're through," Howard said. "I know there are things that I will bring up before we sign off on it."
Howard said development of a stormwater management plan and the separation of stormwater and sanitary sewer, which Taylor said will initially cost much more than the $50 million figure that he's heard tossed about, is one of his primary concerns, as is Taylor's announced plan to eliminate jobs.
"I want more detail on the stormwater management plan," Howard said. "I know we're looking at charging each business and household a stormwater fee, but I think we need a hard-core figure to present to our citizens.
"I also think if we start talking about a reduction in employment, we need to look at cuts in upper management. Does a city our size need three staff attorneys and two assistant city managers? Those are the kinds of positions that cost a significant amount of money."
Howard also said Taylor's announced plans not to include funding for around half of the 51 vacant Albany Police Department positions in the FY 2014 budget are a concern. But Taylor said he's not going to risk public safety.
"It's not that we plan to leave the police department understaffed," Taylor explained. "It's just that we are not going to include funding for 51 vacant positions in this budget. There are areas we can go to -- reserves or cost cuts elsewhere -- to get the funding, but I don't think it's wise to have it just sitting there in the budget."
Taylor said the ever-fluid budgeting process will no doubt become clearer after he's had time to sit down and analyze information gathered at a weekend retreat with the Water, Gas & Light Commission board. At the retreat, the city manager -- who is also currently serving as interim general manager of the utility -- said, he expects to get direction on such issues as combining city and WG&L services.
"I think there are things we can do in IT, in human resources, in systems analysis, in maintenance, in equipment management, in contract procurement that would allow us to become more efficient," Taylor said. "We have to quit thinking territorially and start doing what's best for the organization.
"We may have to ask salaried employees to put in a few extra hours when needed; we may need to reassign duties, combine some functions. We just have to make substantial cuts all around."
Taylor said personnel changes may also be necessary, although that does not necessarily mean eliminating jobs.
"We're just not filling positions at this time unless they are absolutely necessary," the city manager said. "The goal is not to fire anyone, but to make best use of our personnel. That's the reality of our situation.
"We've just grown too much over the last 10 years. IT has been struggling with its workload, and they were short five people. I told them they'd have to make do with three. It's great to have 10 Code Enforcement officers on staff in case we need them, but it makes more sense to hire enough to do the normal workload. The key is normalizing the peaks and valleys. You can't hire more people during work peaks and then turn around and fire them in the valleys. You have to level things out."
As for those groups hoping to get a share of the city's discretionary funds, Taylor says it's not likely.
"Listen, I know the threat of the (Flint) RiverQuarium closing its doors is not a good thing for our community, and I know there are some very worthy organizations that could do good things with any funding we could give them," he said. "But I have to state it very clearly: We can't do this.
"I want to see all our important organizations survive: the Arts Council, Chehaw, the Economic Development Commission, the RiverQuarium, NYSP (National Youth Sports Program), Strive2Thrive. ... There are so many very valuable organizations in our community. But the city doesn't have the money to fund all of them. The fact that some of them are not in the budget, however, doesn't mean they're not worth having."
Taylor has said before that the city "should not be in the cemetery business," but he acknowledges that since the city does own the Riverside/Oakview Cemetery, it has an obligation to the families of the people buried there to provide better upkeep.
"We have to find ways to improve the facilities out there," he said. "Out of respect for the people buried in the cemetery and for their families, we have a responsibility to improve the roads, to get up a new fence worthy of the facility, to keep the grass cut and the property maintained.
"(Cemetery management) is a responsibility this city took on a long time ago, and it's not going away. We have to, then, make that cemetery as much of an asset as it can be. That is just the reality of the situation."
Taylor said the budget plan he presented to commissioners on May 7 was by no means set in stone. But he warned that city department heads have to make austerity the watchword for the foreseeable future.
"We've got to pare things down, and we've got to get in the habit of looking for ways to pare things down," he said, "because 2018 is only a few years away. And in 2018, when that MEAG money (credits from the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia paid to WG&L as a refund for money collected as a hedge against deregulation) quits coming in, our financial picture is going to change dramatically.
"This budget is always going to be a work in progress, and, yes, I'm going to mess things up because I'm a human being. But I'm not too proud to say that I made a mistake, and I will immediately work to fix it. You just can't be rigid. A person unwilling to change is going to die standing in place."