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Committee OKs $75.1 million county budget

ALBANY, Ga. -- "It's confetti time," Dougherty County Commissioner Lamar Hudgins proclaimed with a relieved sigh Friday morning after the Finance Committee he chairs voted to formally recommend a $75,117,959 budget to the full commission at its business meeting Monday.

Friday's early-morning session put the finishing touches on a yearlong process in which the Finance Committee -- Hudgins and fellow commissioners John Hayes and Ewell Lyle -- has met with county staff to follow through on Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard's request that they go through the county's budget "line-by-line" with department managers and elected officials to try and better prioritize county spending for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

"I felt that the budget process needed to be a yearlong process," Sinyard said Friday. "As soon as the (2013) budget was finished, I wanted our Finance Committee -- and I really appreciate them taking on this work -- to spend time on the next year's budget. The more time they had, the more information they were able to collect and use in preparing a budget that would allow us to prioritize our revenue.

"It makes sense to approach the budget process this way because situations constantly change, and many of the changes are tied to finances."

While the $75.1 million total budget marks a 1.5 percent increase over the FY 2013 spending plan, the document includes required notation of such funding items as special-purpose local-option sales tax, law library and grant budgets. The county's FY 2014 General Fund, where County Administrator Richard Crowdis noted at a meeting Wednesday "the rubber meets the road," came in at $44,371,453, a 2 percent cut over the current budget.

"Cut" was the buzzword throughout the budget process, as Crowdis and Finance Director Martha Hendley put together a spending plan that balanced departmental needs and requests with financial reality. Only the county sheriff's department/jail budget was appropriated a significant budget increase, and that number could flatten if Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital meets the county's request to provide discounted inmate health care as it has the past several years.

At Friday's meeting, County Tax Director Denver Hooten told the Finance Committee up-to-date numbers show a $2,068,422,660 digest, up a third of a percentage point from a year ago. Hooten's numbers showed a 3 percent increase in homestead and property exemptions ($195,426,642) countywide and a 4 percent increase ($72,553,258) in the county's special services district.

The special district's adjusted net digest is down slightly (.13 percent) to $532,309,300.

"The digest has changed very slightly," Hooten said during her presentation. "It's pretty much held its own, but you have to remember that (the digest) is a living, breathing document. Every appeal, every vote taken, changes it."

After approving the 2013-14 spending plan, the Finance Committee reconciled the SPLOST IV and V budgets that were in effect during the height of the recession.

"We've estimated pretty conservatively and usually collect enough (SPLOST taxes) to meet projections," Crowdis said. "But during SPLOST IV and V, we undercollected revenues. We need to adjust the budgets of these two SPLOSTs to account for the smaller-than-expected collections."

Part of that process included reallocating the $1.2 million designated for the relocation of the Albany Museum of Art downtown, funding that became moot when AMA decided not to make the move. Crowdis recommended, and the board approved, designating those funds for sewer and road improvements and for the future purchase of elections equipment.

The committee also agreed to budget $19,419.89 to maintain Judge Loring Gray's senior judge position with the Dougherty Judicial Circuit. Crowdis noted that Gray had worked 74 days from March 2012 to March 2013. The state-mandated cost of $500 per diem to bring in an outside senior judge would have cost the county $37,000.

"The county is getting good value there," Crowdis said.