County cutting budget

By Justin Reedy

The county likely won't raise property tax rates this year, though the commission plans on proposing a one-percent sales tax increase to fund road improvements and recreational facilities.

As the sluggish economy drains millions of dollars in sales tax revenue from the county's budget, officials have been scrambling to cut spending and delay buying items without impacting the average citizen.

One indirect negative effect is the elimination of $5 million in grants to local nonprofit organizations, which provide services to average citizens. They will have to find ways to pump new money into their organizations or cut back on what they are able to do.

Like other state and local governments, Clayton County has suffered from lower sales tax revenue post-9/11 and during the current nationwide recession. Because of that, the county has had to trim spending in many areas.

"We've pretty much just held the line on what we could," said Commission Chairman Crandle Bray said. "If you go through it category by category, most areas have decreased."

During the 2001-2002 fiscal year, the county had estimated it would take in about $44 million in sales tax revenue but only wound up getting $34 million. Though the county is taking that drop of revenue into account now, it still hurts to work with $10 million less than a previous budget year.

"We've lost about $20 million (over the last two years) from our estimates," said Clark Stevens, Bray's assistant and one of the county's chief budget writers. "It's been tough on us."

Last year, the budget included about $20 million for a combined Emergency 911/Police Headquarters building that is now under construction. Since that was a one-time expenditure that amount is also missing from this year's budget.

The county also faces necessary spending increases, Bray said, including staffing increases in the accounting department and Sheriff's department.

The Sheriff's department went over its budget on overtime payments to employees this year because the jail was understaffed, officials say. Additional workers are needed in the accounting department, Bray said, since the state has changed the required accounting and auditing procedures for local governments.

"We're proposing to add another pod in the jail, and that requires 12 personnel to staff it," Bray said. "Hopefully that will help us out on our overtime problems."

Though the county is struggling with slumping revenues, the average resident shouldn't see an increase in his or her property tax rate. The county's general fund millage rate n which is used along with a property assessment to calculate a property owner's tax bill n will rise slightly. But the fire millage, which funds operations of the county's fire department, will drop slightly, offsetting the general fund millage increase.

The net effect will be no change in the tax rate, so any increase in a resident's tax bill would come instead from a higher assessed property value.