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County departments take budget cut

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Tightening its belt in preparation for the next fiscal year, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to cut all county department budgets by 3 percent.

The decision came after county Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas asked the board to move forward with the cuts as officials begin planning the 2009-2010 budget.

"Last September, the chairman had sent a memo out to all the department directors asking them to prepare for a 3 percent budget cut," Cohilas said. "Not unlike other governmental agencies around the state, both state and local, we are grappling with effects of the economy. Those changes need to be implemented."

The board approved the cuts unanimously. Board Chairman Eldrin Bell said the move was necessary and stressed the cuts would not impact county services or county employees' salaries.

"I looked at that last September and wrote them [department heads] in October letting them know that this might occur," Bell said. "I brought it before the board. Let's get it out of the way. Let's get it out of the budget before we move forward with the new budget ... so they'll be operating on funds they'll have to be operating with."

In another move Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to support legislation calling for the county to be able to increase its take of the hotel/motel tax from 6 percent to 8 percent.

The board delayed votes on three separate resolutions supporting an additional state court judgeship, changing the compensation of the probate court judge, and providing additional compensation for the district attorney and judges of the superior court.

Commissioner Wole Ralph, chairman of the board Finance Committee, believes the board needs more time to review next year's budget figures.

"What the board has asked the chairman to do is review the budget as it relates to the funding priorities of next year," Ralph said. "It is difficult to talk about these items right now because we are in the middle of a budget preparation process and they need the commission to support this prior to our evaluation of what revenue is going to be in the budget. We are really concerned about adding additional personnel to the budget without any numbers to go on."

Ralph said the 3 percent budget cut may add additional stress on some county departments, but he believes the county will manage.

"The Clayton County government is pretty skinny, not a lot of surplus, not a lot of fluff," Ralph said. "I think the 3 percent cut will be tough for many departments, but we have strong leadership in place, with many department heads being proactive and as thoughtful as possible about what they can do to help get through this."

In another move, the board voted unanimously to support legislation which, if approved by the Georgia General Assembly, would rename a portion of Ga. Highway 138 to Lake Spivey Parkway. On Monday, the Henry County government passed a similar resolution, supporting the renaming of a portion of Ga. 138 that lies in that county, to Lake Spivey Parkway as well.

The Clayton County portion of the road passes through the district of Commissioner Michael Edmondson. He believes the name change will create positive branding for the highway, which has recently been widened from two lanes to four lanes.

"The county recently adopted some new overlay standards to positively steer the development of the area," he said. "It's nothing more than an attempt to positively highlight those good things in the area. Highway 138 is already a commercial corridor by definition. My concern is that we get the best kind of commercial development along Highway 138."

Edmondson said he has been in touch with the family of Charles "Ed" Holcomb, a former state representative and county school board member for whom a portion of Ga. 138 is named. Edmondson said "it is very important to his memory that we continue to honor him," and that Holcomb's signs would continue to adorn the highway.

Henry County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis said creating Lake Spivey Parkway along Ga. 138 would help "create a sense of identity" for the residents there.

"Henry and Clayton counties have split a lot of that community in half," she said. "What we're attempting to do is work with the residents in that area to create a sense of community. Planning is always better than just letting things happen."

"It's beneficial to both counties because if you look at it from our standpoint, Highway 138 is the gateway into our county," Mathis said. "If they raise the bar on their side, it's going to raise the bar on our side."