Bell looking to cut next budget

By Justin Boron

In an attempt to scrape away any unnecessary expense in the Clayton County government, Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said Tuesday he will overhaul the county budget by forcing department heads to justify each item requested in their financial proposals for next year.

The move diverges from the procedure of previous administrations, which allowed department heads to keep the previous year's budget and only have to explain requests that expanded their department's expense.

The change in budget planning, which embraces a "zero-base" policy, is intended to avoid a tax increase, despite the number of heavy financial obligations taken on by the county government since it changed hands in January, Bell said.

The sheriff's personnel actions, several legislative bills to raise salaries for court officials, and an airline sales tax exemption combined to create a financial predicament for the county, he said.

"With the financial obligations we have, it's a pretty squeaky wheel," Bell said.

The county also faces a close to $800,000 increase in the cost of C-TRAN bus services and a $2 million annual payment on bonds issued for the Gateway Village project. The bond payment may be reduced to just over $1 million if the county commission decides to refinance the debt, said Dan Martin, the county's director of finance.

Bell said even with the added expense, he can still produce a revenue neutral budget by clenching down on last year's $131 million general fund.

While Bell remains optimistic about a budget proposal to be ready as early as June, the annual financial plan has driven some contention over what part of the planning process should be made public.

County Commissioner Wole Ralph asked for the budget recommendations made to Bell by Martin and Chief of Staff Clark Stevens.

Both denied the request, saying they were not obligated to provide what amounted to their thoughts and musings.

But David Hudson, staff attorney for the Georgia Press Association, said any documents held by the government are public records.

"While the papers might be drafts, talking points, or 'musings,' they are still in the possession of a government body and are public records," he said.

Ralph said he wanted the recommendations to thoroughly investigate the budget proposals, getting input from both professionals and politicians.

Regardless of his motivation, he said the request was crucial to open government.

"It is incredibly important that this county send the message that we have a transparent government," Ralph said.