Work on $190 million city of Albany budget heads into the stretch

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough and Ward VI Commissioner Demetrius Young talk after the conclusion of a Tuesday commission work session.

ALBANY — With the due date to complete a nearly $190 million budget coming on June 22, the Albany City Commission is sprinting toward the finish line.

On June 8, commissioners will hear budget updates pertaining to the police and fire departments, recreation, utility operations and Code Enforcement. The commission will receive a final draft of the document on June 22 for approval for the budget year that begins on July 1.

Earlier this year, a group of firefighters brought concerns to the commission, including existing policies that sometimes result in relatively new employees earning more than veteran members of the department.

“Fire department pay is an issue that will need some discussion,” interim City Manager Steven Carter told commissioners during a Tuesday work session.

Carter, who met with department heads last week, said they have formulated “a plan they think they can live with.”

The commission last year approved a 6 percent pay raise in the current budget that applied to all officers at the rank of major and below. Commissioners will ultimately make the decision on how to address the issue of pay for firefighters.

This year, the primary driving idea on employee pay is a cost-of-living adjustment, Carter said during an interview following the meeting.

One bright spot is that sales tax receipts seem to be recovering after the decline during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Sales taxes have started to rebound kind of back to before,” Carter said. “The city of Albany is in sound financial condition. We have a strong push forward to continue to be so.”

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough agreed with that assessment.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape considering what we’ve been through the last year,” he said in an interview after the meeting.

During the meeting, several groups asked for consideration for future funding through the city using federal American Rescue Plan funds. That discussion is separate from the $190 general fund budget, which pays the cost of city operations.

Among those seeking funding are SOWEGA Rising, an Albany-based nonprofit organization that has assisted in providing food to individuals and personal protection equipment to small businesses during the pandemic.

Sherell Byrd, SOWEGA Rising chair, said the group is requesting $1 million in funding for food improvements and rural health and an equal amount for economic revitalization for small businesses impacted by the pandemic. COVID-19 hit black residents and black-owned businesses particularly hard, Byrd told commissioners.

“Forty percent of black businesses did not survive,” she said. “COVID-19 also affected our physical health.”

Nationwide, black people accounted for 34 percent of deaths from the disease, while they are only 12 percent of the population.

“There is language in the American Recovery Act that the money should go to organizations that can really (boost) COVID recovery,” she said.

The city learned earlier this year that it will receive about $20 million from the federal grant as part of the program.

The consensus of the commission at the time was to use those funds to help pay the costs of its antiquated sewer/stormwater drain system. The city has a five-year deadline to come into compliance with federal guidelines, and that project has an estimated $100 million cost.

To pay for the repairs, the commission had been contemplating a steep hike in utility rates and devoting sales tax proceeds to the sewer/stormwater separation system.

While the need to update the sewer system is great, Commissioner Demetrius Young has on several occasions requested using some of the funds to help the community recover from the pandemic. He said some of it should be used to address health disparities and to help small businesses.

“I look at this money as no different than the money that came after the flood, that came after the hurricane, that came after the storms,” he said. “We experienced nothing short of a disaster here in Albany. I think it’s imperative to look at this money for disaster recovery.”

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