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Commissioners adopt $176.8 million budget

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners unanimously adopted a fiscal 2010 budget Tuesday that avoids layoffs and county-wide furloughs.

While residents could see property taxes increase by 3 mills from the previous fiscal year, public safety departments would see significant funding gains under the plan.

The board approved a budget of $176.8 million, factoring in an additional $17.9 million in property tax revenues - up from a budget proposed last week of $158.9 million.

The additional revenue is expected to enable the county's police department to fill 35 vacant officer positions, at a cost of $600,000, and allow the sheriff's office to add 12 additional corrections officers and new equipment at a cost of $622,707.

The board will conduct three hearings - two meetings on July 14 at 9 a.m., and 6 p.m., and one meeting on July 21 at 6 p.m. - before setting its new property tax millage rate.

"I think everybody is pleased with what they heard," said Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner. "They don't have to furlough anyone. The important thing to me is that they decided to fill all the vacancies [in the police department]. It allows us to continue to be proactive instead of reactive."

In addition to increasing staff in the police department and sheriff's office, the budget also includes gains in other safety-related departments. Under the budget adopted by the commission, the district attorney's office will shed two senior assistant district attorneys but add three senior litigation assistant district attorneys at a cost of $100,335. The Circuit Public Defender's Office will receive eight additional assistant public defenders, four assistant investigators, four administrative assistants, and money for operating expenses, at a cost of $1.2 million.

The magistrate court will acquire a full-time secretary, increase wages for its part-time and temporary workers, replace outdated recording systems in four courtrooms, and acquire wireless service for laptops at a cost of $51,487. The superior court's office supply and uniform allowance will also increase by $4,000, according to budget documents.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell described the fiscal 2010 budget as a "good compromise."

"I did not want to propose furloughs, but I had to represent it as what it would be if we didn't raise taxes," Bell said. "If we show [citizens] what they are about to lose, it allows them to be able to make responsible decisions."

In other budget matters, C-TRAN, the county's public bus service, received a $2 million cut in its operational funding. The system, which county officials say costs $11 million to operate annually, and brings in only $3 million a year in fare box revenue, was identified by several commissioners as a likely area for decreased funding.

Commissioner Wole Ralph reiterated Tuesday the board will likely seek a referendum on the continued funding of C-TRAN on Sept. 15.

"The citizens have a right to be heard," Ralph said. "[Cutting back on C-TRAN services] could certainly relieve our budget in future years, because it will be an ongoing expense. We have decided to put it out for a referendum. We didn't really talk about that much today ... the time for that discussion will come at our public hearings."

Bell said that on Tuesday, the county received $3 million in federal stimulus money, 10 percent of which will be used to supplement C-TRAN. He said over the next few months, the county will conduct a study to determine how valued C-TRAN's services are to Clayton County residents.

"Federal requirements expect us to do a study before increasing or decreasing C-TRAN," Bell said. "I will continue to scout for sources to keep C-TRAN a viable operation ... for our workers, our students, our seniors, and particularly our para-transit riders. If we cut it, I want it to be minimal."