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No tax hike: BOC approves $168.6 million budget

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Clayton County fiscal 2009 budget was narrowly passed by a vote of 3-2 during a special called meeting of the board of commissioners Thursday.

Commission members deliberated for nearly two hours on how best to spend the $168.5 million budgeted for next year.

Additional funding to several county departments was put on hold, including money for the Information Technology department's Geographical Information System (GIS) division, which has been making efforts to digitize the county's archival data, and make it available online.

Those and other "wish list" items will have to wait, according to BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell. "I'd like to be able to fund the departments' budgets as they have demonstrated their needs, but the public is having to tighten their belts, so we are having to tighten ours," said Bell. "I'm happy that, unlike a number of our sister cities and counties, all of our employees have jobs."

Even with a slim budget, Bell said the county will "still be able to deliver the required services" and the budget has been balanced "without a tax increase."

The budget was approved with some last-minute amendments, including a $10,000 donation to the Good Shepherd Clinic in Morrow, an additional $100,000 for 10 new lawnmowers to address code enforcement needs, and the reclassification of a paralegal position in the legal department at an additional $9,540 in cost.

A total of $314,419 was diverted from the county's Indigent Defense Administration to the Circuit Public Defenders Office, supporting the hiring of an additional investigator; an administrative assistant; giving a monetary supplement for the chief Public Defender; adding three new assistant public defenders; paying for additional printers and court reporter fees.

A sum of $30,000 was shuffled from the Professional Services department to the library system, to help pay for more books and materials.

Bell said the BOC would aim to keep at least $20 million in the county reserves at all times. At one point, commissioners were asked to vote on which budget amendments they wanted to keep or reject.

A debate ensued over a move to get rid of the county's Operation Clean Sweep program. On a periodic basis, it helps citizens dispose of their hazardous waste and other bulky garbage. The usefulness of the program -- which costs $120,000 a year to run -- was questioned by some commissioners, while others viewed it as a vital service for widows and the elderly.

"I am adamantly opposed to cutting that service," said Commissioner Virginia Gray. "It is kind of a morale booster for our citizens, because they plan their yearly cleaning activities around it."

Future adjustments may be made to the budget to accommodate other departments, but for the time being, the BOC is being very conservative, said Commissioner Wole Ralph.

"I think that, right now, the economy is in a pretty volatile place, nationally, statewide, and regionally," said Ralph. "We need to be ready if this economy continues to slide. This is not the budget to dramatically increase the services of the county ... this is the budget to safeguard the taxpayers."

Ralph said the county may have to use "a number of financial tools" this year to keep "moving the county forward on stable footing." However, he said it's better to "come out in the beginning with a very conservative budget," rather than try "to correct it during the year."

Commissioner Michael Edmondson, who joined commission Gray in voting against the budget, said he is "disappointed" the budget has no "strategic plans" to move resources toward needed areas, such as police and code enforcement.

"The proposed budget we are proposing tonight does nothing to advance the county's mission statement," Edmondson said before the meeting. "This budget has no input from the district commissioners and at this time, I don't support it."

Edmondson said since February, Bell and county finance director Angela Jackson hosted a series of well-publicized meetings to hash out the county budget. He said commissioners Sonna Singleton, Ralph, and Gray were not present.

"The chairman was at all of them, I was at some of them, and none of the other commissioners showed up for any of them," said Edmondson.

Commissioners Ralph and Singleton said that according to state law and county code, it is the job of the chairman and the finance director to use those meetings to meet with department heads, draft a budget, and submit the budget to the board for approval.

"It's state law that the chairman and the finance director are responsible for preparing the budget," said Singleton. "I have a lot of confidence in our finance director in preparing our balanced budget." Singleton said she had not attended any of the meetings this year.

"As a commissioner, it's not my role to go to those meetings," which are often held during working hours, said Ralph. "Those meetings are so the chairman can make his recommendations and submit them to the board."

Commissioner Edmondson "may be confused about the responsibility of the chairman and the responsibility of the commissioners," said Ralph.