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Board splits from chairman on 2010 budget
Commissioners call for C-TRAN referendum

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Clayton County Commissioners Wole Ralph, Gail Hambrick, Sonna Singleton and Michael Edmondson issued a joint statement on Monday, taking a united stand against Board Chairman Eldrin Bell's recommendations for furloughs and possibly layoffs to balance the county's fiscal 2010 budget.

In addition, the four commissioners said they will push for a referendum in September to determine if taxpayers want to continue funding the county's C-TRAN bus service.

Seeking to shield public safety officials and other county workers from lost work days and wages, the four commissioners said they would vote against any plan that includes furloughs. Instead, they said they support calling for a referendum on Sept. 15, to determine the fate of C-TRAN, which costs approximately $8 million a year to operate.

"We believe that protection of life and property is the highest priority of any government," said the four commissioners, in a statement released on Monday.

"In our opinion ... the chairman's proposals increase the risk of loss of life and property. Therefore, we do not intend to support the chairman's call for across-the-board cuts in personnel. Rather, we believe that by working with the chief of staff, the finance director, and other county staff, we can identify a combination of measures designed to produce a budget that will not require layoffs and furloughs of employees, especially those involved in protecting our lives and property.

"C-TRAN will cause ongoing budgetary pressure. Therefore, we will ask the taxpayers of this county to vote on the continued funding of C-TRAN in September. Our financial review will not be limited to C-TRAN. We intend to leverage every taxpayer dollar to its maximum benefit," said the statement bearing the names of Ralph, Hambrick, Singleton and Edmondson.

Last week, Bell introduced the county's proposed 2010 budget of $158.9 million, a decrease of $9.6 million from the previous fiscal year. Among suggestions to make up for the shortfall were a 14 percent reduction in personnel funding, modifications to C-TRAN to reduce its costs by $2 million, and other cutbacks.

Bell issued his own press statement on Monday in response to the commissioners' joint statement. He called their statement "divisive," and "political posturing." Bell criticized his fellow commissioners for approving new positions the past year, and attempting several times to take away the chairman's powers of budgetary oversight.

"On April 7, 2009, Commissioner [s] Ralph, Singleton, Edmondson, and Hambrick unanimously voted that I present budget recommendations to the board for the 2010 budget," Bell said in his statement. "They made this recommendation, despite having created a finance committee that did not include me, and provided no reports. The board, having passed a new ordinance in January, sought to diminished [sic] my legal authority as chairman of the county commission and wrest it in the hands of our Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas ... they did this after approving new positions and raises for certain staff in the midst of a recession when other counties have made choices to freeze new hires and raises. It was under these circumstances that they turned over the budget to me.

"I endeavored to do the job they tasked me to do in the resolution - to make recommendations," the statement continued. "The commissioners were well aware that I would have to make some tough recommendations, recommendations that they did not have the political will or courage to do ... options that we are weighing now are no different than options that have been made by state government as many state agencies have laid off and are on furloughs, along with county and city governments. Please know that furloughs are not the only options that I have placed before the commissioners to consider ..."

Ralph, Singleton, Hambrick and Edmondson said they issued their statement to quell public anxiety about possible public safety cuts. "The [budget] book that goes out to the public has the seal of the commission on it ... we wanted to make it clear that these were the chairman's recommendations," Ralph said. "The major thing is the lack of prioritization of cuts, as well as the disregard of our constitutional duty to protect the health and safety of the public," he added.

"A lot of our citizens and employees have been feeling a lot of anxiety," Singleton said. "We're tightening our belt in different areas, and our citizens are concerned about their safety ... we felt that we needed to alleviate some of those concerns.

"I'm in disagreement that the only way for us to get through 2010 is through furloughs and layoffs," Singleton continued. "I believe that there are other ways to streamline services. I was shocked that this was the solution [Bell] had, given the fact that we have not had any formal budget meetings this year," she said.

"I'm critical of the fact that district commissioners were discluded [sic] from the budget process completely," Edmondson said. "The budget that was proposed to the public last Tuesday was the first time that the district commissioners ever saw it. It's basically telling every police officer to take an unpaid vacation day every other Friday ... I don't think that is good for the citizens."

Hambrick could not be reached for comment.

While the board is weighing a number of options to balance the budget, including raising taxes, district commissioners expressed Tuesday that they would seek guidance from voters in a September referendum on whether to discontinue C-TRAN bus service. The four said discontinuing C-TRAN would lift a $8 million financial burden from the county.

"Recognizing the ongoing budgetary pressure that C-TRAN puts on the county, to the tune of $8 or $9 million a year, is it the citizens' desire to raise taxes to cover this?" Ralph asked. "In this case, I feel like the board is seeking their guidance."

"Since last week, I have been bombarded by citizens with concerns about the benefit of continuing to carry C-TRAN ... and considering cutting public safety," Singleton said. "The citizens are questioning why we continue to bear that burden."

"I can't say that [C-TRAN] is going away," Edmondson said. "That wouldn't be fair or accurate. It could provide substantial savings, but it's important to see how the citizens feel about it before we make those decisions."

Bell said he believes cutting C-TRAN completely would be a costly mistake. "Those 61 percent of the riders who use it to get to work ... the question comes, will they turn to the illegitimate labor market because they can't get employment?" he asked. "The 10 percent of them that use C-TRAN to get to school, will they have to drop out. If we don't take care of them on one end, we may have to take care of them on another."

The Board of Commissioners will host a public, budget hearing today at 6 p.m., at the Clayton County Administration Building, located at 112 Smith St., in Jonesboro.