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County predicts gains in new budget

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners expect its budget for the 2009 fiscal year will be $5.4 million greater than the year before.

The predicted 2009 operating budget of $168.5 million is a 3.3 percent increase over last year's budget of approximately $163.1 million, and represents a significant increase over the 2004 budget of $124.5 million.

Last year's base millage rate of 13.453 mills is expected to stay the same this year.

The increase in revenue, Angela Jackson, county director of finance, said, is a result of the county being smarter with its money.

"Clayton County's finances remain healthy, given its conservative budgeting policies and tax revenue growth," Jackson said in a recent budget report. "Clayton County's success with managing growth and planning for the future is highlighted by the recognition associated with the county's attainment of its bond rating of Aa2 from Moody's Investors Service, Inc., and AA by Standard & Poor's Ratings Services.

"The bond rating reflects the county's conservative fiscal policies, professional management, and moderate debt levels," Jackson said.

The report credits the Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), approved in 2003, and the new SPLOST approved earlier this year, as contributing factors in recent budgetary gains. The report also gives credit to money-saving policy changes, such as the switch from the county's point system of vehicle replacement in 2006 to a new policy, in which vehicles are replaced only when they are beyond repair, or the cost of repair exceeds the value of the vehicle.

The county's Debt Service Fund has decreased from last year's budget by 15.1 percent, due to the satisfaction of revenue bonds. In addition, the Landfill Enterprise Fund dropped 14.6 percent, due to the county offering several free, garbage-disposal programs, as well as programs to discourage littering.

The BOC plans to put it's predicted gains from savings like these to use in several ways, including a technology initiative, in which the county will buy 71 new desk-top computers, 18 laptops, two printers, and a variety of software needed by various departments. More money will be allotted to public transit as well as to street-light maintenance.

The 2009 budget, however, does not include a pay raise for Clayton County employees, as have the budgets for the previous two years.

"The county felt it important during tough economic times to ensure that services to citizens were maintained and staffing levels were preserved," said Jackson.

Commissioner Virginia Gray believes the new budget is "overstated," however, and that the actual revenue the county generates will be less. "I think we are projecting much more revenue than we will actually be getting," said Gray, citing declining property values, stagnant business growth, and the probability of the car-rental industry moving out of the county.

"The housing market is nil," said Gray. "We've got so many businesses folding and leaving that we are not replacing. We have foreclosures all over the county, so how can you predict an increase in property taxes?"

The BOC will also have to take into account new budgetary changes, such as taking on "the sole responsibility" of operating C-TRAN. According to reports, the county will have to take on the responsibilities of grant management, internal operations, and monitoring sales revenue. The BOC may also end up having to support more debt from Southern Regional Medical Center than in last year's budget.

BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell believes the budget is sound and that it was put together after "careful consideration."

"It was not pie in the sky," said Bell. "Sound judgment comes from studying the issues. I've studied all of the issues that impact the budget. It was put together after careful consideration and what I and Ms. [Angela] Jackson were able to agree upon."

The BOC will vote on the proposed budget on Thursday.