Since Charles Westbrook has “called me out” publicly in The Albany Herald (“Raising taxes is not the only solution,” March 13), I must respond to his comments.
During one of the 2012 County Commission meetings chaired by his brother-in-law Commissioner Ewell Lyle, Mr. Westbrook was lecturing the County Commission regarding the Special Services District Budget. This is a relatively small budget — approximately $7 million, a two-page document. It covers the revenues and expenditures for specific services provided in the unincorporated area of Dougherty County.
I had my budget book with me and asked Mr. Westbrook if he had ever looked at this budget. Since he was giving us detailed instructions and direction, surely he knew all about it. After pausing, Mr. Westbrook stated that he had never read the two-page budget. I then asked him to take some time to study it, and please come back to our meeting with some pertinent facts that would be helpful to the commission.
The Special Services District Budget has very little “wiggle room,” especially when the revenues are dwindling, as they were in 2012. Almost 90 percent of that budget is for police and fire protection. The only alternative to “gutting” the Dougherty County Police Department (per Chief Don Cheek) was to increase the millage rate. Our Fire Services Contract with the city of Albany was not up for renegotiation.
Mr. Westbrook had never experienced an increase in his millage rate for the Special Services District Budget in the 10 years prior to 2012. However, he had experienced several reductions in this millage rate over the same years. Our choice in 2012 for that budget was to decimate the Dougherty County Police Department or increase the millage rate. Because our professionals ensured us that the police protection in the unincorporated area would be severely compromised, I voted to increase the millage rate. Chairman (Jeff) Sinyard, Commissioners (Jack) Stone, (Gloria) Gaines, and I voted to save the DCP and guarantee the much-needed protection our citizens deserved. No other Commissioner, nor did Mr. Westbrook, offered an alternative that was logical or legal, in my opinion.
I feel sure that Mr. Westbrook realizes that Dougherty County continues to experience difficult economic circumstances as it has over the last several years. Serving in government at any level has been a challenge to say the least.
Thankfully, Dougherty County government has not terminated a single employee due to budget constraints, as other governments have. We have decreased costs over the years thanks to all the elected officials, department managers and employees. We have not filled vacancies due to attrition in many departments. We asked our employees to accept five unpaid holidays several years ago, and they understood the difficult economic times we were in.
In this fiscal year, we were able to amend our budget for a $500 special disbursement to each full-time Dougherty County employee. No, it was not an annual salary increase. My goal, and the commission’s goal, is to be able to grant a salary increase when our financial condition permits, without having to increase a millage rate.
Last year the Dougherty County Commission engaged the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia to study our delivery of law enforcement and fire protection services to the citizens in the unincorporated area. Both studies indicated that our current deliveries of these services were the least expensive methods.
Even so, Mr. Westbrook continues to use this forum and mingle his “facts” between the Special Services District Budget and the General M&O Budget for Dougherty County.
Regarding duplication of services, in the early 1970s the leaders of the city of Albany and Dougherty County voluntarily began to approve service delivery agreements between the two governmental bodies. Our leaders at the time recognized that the citizens shouldn’t be paying for services they weren’t receiving. Over 20 years later, the state required counties and cities (HB 489) to cease duplicating services to its citizens.
Albany and Dougherty County were decades in front of this issue and a model for other local governments in Georgia.
Yes, Mr. Westbrook, I am a “long-term commissioner.” I have had the wonderful opportunity of serving here in both city and county governments for over 23 years. In each and every one of those years, I have challenged myself to consider different approaches in every area of my life, including government. And I will continue to do so. I will always embrace change, when it will benefit the fine citizens of Dougherty County. May God bless us, every one.
Lamar Hudgins represents District 1 on the Dougherty County Commission.