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Furloughs considered in county budget

By Joel Hall

Clayton County is considering higher taxes, staff furloughs and other money-saving measures following the release of its proposed fiscal year 2010 budget.

Introduced this week, the proposed budget calls for a 14 percent, across-the-board reduction in personnel spending, which may impact the salaries of 2,199 full-time employees.

According to Clayton County Finance Director Angela Jackson, the fiscal 2010 budget totals $158.9 million, which is $9.6 million less than the budget for fiscal 2009, which ends June 30. In the report, she added that the county's tax digest will be 3.6 percent lower in fiscal 2010 than the previous year, local option sales tax (LOST) revenues will be 9 percent lower, and revenues from permits and licenses will be 32 percent lower.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said dismal property tax and sales tax collections have contributed to the budget the county is facing. He said recommendations on the table to balance the budget include instituting two furlough days per month for all county employees, raising taxes, and other spending cuts.

"National and local conditions in the economy got us to where we are," Bell said. "Sales tax is down. We usually get $4 million a month ... now we get 2.

"We don't have 900 choices," he continued. "The money isn't coming in. We can either raise the taxes or cut the services."

Public safety impact

The fiscal 2010 budget proposes spending 20.99 percent of the county's governmental fund expenditures on public safety and 19.28 percent on courts and law enforcement. Some commissioners and county employees have expressed anxiety about whether public safety officials will be able to perform their duties under the proposed budget constraints.

Alex Cohilas, Clayton County fire chief and chief of staff, said the proposed employee furlough has caused "great concern" among public safety departments.

"Every public safety agency is scheduled under this proposal for furloughs, including [Police Chief] Jeff Turner and [Fire] Chief Cohilas," Cohilas said. "Furloughs will only account for 10 percent of the reduction in the salary line item. Department directors are expected to come up with the other 4 percent by not filling other positions.

"We're already short-staffed," he continued. "If you furlough on top of that, it is a serious issue."

He said he has concerns about the impact on the 911 center's ability to handle calls and about police officer response time. "We are particularly concerned with our EMS [paramedics] department's ability to respond to heart attacks, in which time is crucial," he said.

Proposed cuts to C-TRAN

C-TRAN, the county's public transportation system, currently cost $10 million annually to operate and only collects $2.5 million in fare box revenue. Several commissioners have proposed making drastic cuts to C-TRAN before considering furloughing public safety employees.

"It's really been a financial burden," Commissioner Gail Hambrick said of the county's C-TRAN service. "If I was going to do any cutting, that would be at the top of my list. If it came between public safety and C-TRAN, I would like to think the citizens would say public safety."

"C-TRAN is not the only one, but it uses quite a bit of money out of our budget," said Commissioner Sonna Singleton. "We have to definitely look at this because we can't put the citizens' public safety at risk."

Bell asked that commissioners conduct a cost-benefit analysis of C-TRAN and other county services before putting C-TRAN on the chopping block.

Bell said eliminating C-TRAN won't result in immediate savings, and that it could take as long as six months to do so because of mandatory hearings that would be required.

"So that is not going to balance our budget," he said. "It's a very needed service in the county. I just hope they take a close look at that before they cut it."

Narrow time frame

Commissioners will have only two weeks to digest the county budget and make recommendations before it is due to go into effect. Commissioner Wole Ralph said that commissioners need to prioritize their spending before the board votes on the new budget on June 30.

"The budget doesn't reflect the kinds of cuts that I would like see before we started considering cutting employees," Ralph said. "The major concern in this budget is that we are incredibly constrained in our time frame. If someone calls 911, I can't send C-TRAN. We have to prioritize what we are doing, everything from C-TRAN to public safety."

"We must provide every possible means to protect our employees and protect the budget at the same time," Bell said. "The Board of Commissioners needs to hear from the community."

A public hearing on the proposed fiscal 2010 budget will take place on Tuesday, June 23 at 6 p.m., in the commissioners' boardroom at 112 Smith Street in Jonesboro.