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Bell: Study to help trim 'top heavy' government

By Justin Boron

Top heaviness in the Clayton County government, with its 25 administrative department heads, is one of the concerns fueling Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell's attempt to trim next year's budget and avoid a tax increase.

Bell said recommendations from an external study of the county's use of its resources, which isolates redundancies and aims to make the government more efficient, will likely play a role in shaping any potential personnel reductions in next year's budget.

In March, the Board of Commissioners approved the consultant services of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. Officials for the institute conceded that personnel reductions can be the result of their studies, but also said it wasn't specifically what they were out to accomplish.

Deep into the budget preparations, county expenditure is being overhauled by Bell's "zero-based" budgeting concept, which requires department heads to justify their costs line by line. Past budget proceedings simply allowed department heads to keep the prior year's budget.

The process aims to remove any money that slips under the rug and isn't actively applied to anything, Bell said.

Also at stake, with the promise of budget cuts, are the future wait times at the polls.

During elections in November, an insufficient number of voting machines led to lines as long as four hours, despite a week of early voting.

Annie Bright, director of elections, said she requested 260 machines at a cost of $745,264, in next year's budget to expand the number of precincts and early voting locations.

But a preliminary financial analysis of budget requests and improvements only recommends the addition of 100 machines, less than half what Bright said was needed to make the necessary additions to the election process.

Upon providing the analysis, county officials cautioned against use of the word "recommendation," saying the budget documents are transitional and have not reached the level of a recommendation.

"Any document made available is but a reflection of a particular moment in an ongoing process, with the recommendation to the director of finance, the chairman of the board, or the Board of Commissioners as yet unknown and uncertain," said County Staff Attorney Harry Osborne in letter also copied to Bell and Finance Director Dan Martin.

Nevertheless, under the column for improvements on the documents obtained by the News Daily through Georgia Open Records Act, there is a subcolumn named "Recommended FY 2006."

The point at which documents become official recommendations and the level of oversight that should be permitted to the public and other county commissioners was a subject of debate recently, when Commissioner Wole Ralph requested the staff recommendations for the budget and was denied.

He subsequently filed a formal open records request and received the documents.

Also in the budget analysis, a new staff attorney is penciled in for the county's legal department.

Bell said if approved, the extra attorney would handle much of the litigation that in the past, has been contracted out to local firms like Hancock & Palmer or Foster & Foster.

The budget analysis pegs the savings at $105,158.