0

BOC pads reserve, drops tax cut

By Justin Boron

Abandoning a planned tax cut to boost its reserve funds, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners Tuesday adopted a budget that sought to alleviate concerns over the government's future financial stability.

However, the move raised the chagrin of the district attorney and the sheriff, who say they may sue the county commission because it ignored their budget needs amid rising crime.

Sheriff Victor Hill, calling from a convention in Louisville, Ky., said he instructed his legal advisor to begin drawing up the lawsuit.

"What the commission fails to understand is that the budget is not for them, it's for the citizens," he said. "They're not hurting me. They're hurting the citizens."

District Attorney Jewel Scott was not as certain about her inclination to file suit.

But she said the possibility was still open.

"Today is a sad day in Clayton County," Scott said.

The board's actions, she said, sent the message that the safety of the residents was "secondary to whatever political agenda exists."

Solicitor General Leslie Miller-Terry would not say she was ready to sue. But she said she was unhappy with the commissioners' actions.

County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell defended the board's decision, calling for the elected officials and department heads to manage better what they already had.

"Given what our future circumstances are, we put together a good budget," he said.

The board unanimously approved the amended $138.8 million budget, which plans to maintain the current millage rate. Keeping the net property tax rate the same would enable the county commission to add $2.1 million to its reserve fund.

The additional money would push the fund - which is used for emergencies and to pay bills before income is collected - closer to the 10 percent standard recommended by credit rating agencies.

Against the backdrop of Delta Air Lines' uncertain future, Commissioners Wole Ralph and Charley Griswell had raised concerns about how secure the county's finances would be if the struggling company's ability to pay taxes changed.

Ralph said he was happy that the extra money went to the reserve.

But in choosing to pad the reserve fund, the county commission ignored almost all of the $2.9 million worth of "bare minimum" requests that the sheriff, district attorney, and the solicitor general said they required to combat surging crime in the county.

Most of their requests were personnel additions that the officials said their offices desperately needed.

Ralph said while he voted for the amended budget, he didn't entirely support it.

"I would have preferred to see a budget that prioritized the public's desire for unity in county government over political infighting," he said in a press release. "Moving forward, the county's greatest priority is for the leadership to work together."

Ralph also said the county shouldn't have caved to the threat of litigation, but it needed to show some good will.

"You can't be held hostage to lawsuits, but at the same time, you have to work with people," he said.

In the budget amendment proposed by Commissioner Charley Griswell, the board left itself some wiggle room, voting to return to the budget at mid-year to consider the requests of the court officials and sheriff.

Also, the board did grant Chief Magistrate Daphne Walker an additional judge, a calendar clerk, and bailiff fees.

The reserve fund increase also sacrificed the millage rate decrease proposed in earlier versions of the budget.

While the county commission plans to keep the tax rate the same, residents could still see extra money on their tax bills because of an increase in assessed property value.

A millage increase also could be required if the total value of property in the county comes back below preliminary estimates of county financial staff.

Terry Baskin, the county tax commissioner, said the outlook is good for the county based on early versions of the tax digest.

Aside from the bulky reserve fund amendment, several other changes were made to the final version of the budget.

The board cut the $60,000 from its own budget, dumping a proposed constituent services coordinator, who would have handled citizen complaints and requests.

The board also gave the police chief $18,368 reclassification, according to a finance department letter listing the budget amendments.