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BOC anticipates $8 million budget shortfall

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

A 4 percent salary reduction for all county employees is one possible remedy being offered by the chairman of the Clayton County Commission, in order to help plug an anticipated $8 million gap in the county's 2011 budget.

Despite saving $9.9 million with the termination of the C-TRAN bus service, county officials still project a budget shortfall, and must find a way to submit a balanced budget to the state by June 30.

Today, at 6 p.m., there will be a public hearing on the proposed budget submitted by Clayton County Chairman Eldrin Bell, at the County Administration Building, located at 112 Smith St., in Jonesboro. The board is scheduled to adopt its fiscal 2011 budget next Tuesday.

According to the 2011 budget proposed by Bell, $4.5 million would be trimmed from the budget if the wage cut is implemented. The chairman said the remaining money would come out of the county's general fund reserve, which is currently at $25 million, he said.

"If we go to $21 million, I'm advised [by county finance director Angela Jackson] that we would be within the limit recommended by the state," Bell said. He said state regulating agencies recommend that counties keep an amount equal to at least 10 percent of their total budget in reserves.

"I chose to take an amount from the general fund and I chose to take a certain amount from employee salaries," Bell continued. "Did I want to do that? No. The other option I have is raise taxes. If they want to take furloughs instead of a cut, that is fine by me. If they have some other places they want to cut, I'm Ok with that. According to Georgia law, we have to have a balanced budget."

The proposed fiscal 2011 general fund budget is 5.8 percent down from the previous year's amended budget of $179 million. It would be $169 million.

According to finance chief Jackson, a 22 percent decline in residential values, and a 50-percent decline in motor vehicle tax revenues, contributed to a $10 million decline in property tax revenues anticipated in the 2011 budget.

Other cutbacks anticipated in the 2011 budget include a $500,000 decrease in the county's vehicle replacement reserve, down from $1.3 million last year; a 37 percent decrease in the county's parks and recreation fund, from $1.12 million last year to $708,237 this year; a 24.1 percent decrease in the county's juvenile supplemental services fund, from $29,000 last year to $22,000 this year, and a decrease in the county's overall operating budget from $448 million to $267 million.

BOC Vice Chairman Wole Ralph criticized Bell for making the budget public only two weeks prior to its adoption deadline. "The budget process starts in February," Ralph said. "We got this proposal with only two weeks to discuss alternatives. There may be some state mandates in this budget that have not been funded. It leaves the board's hands tied in many ways."

When asked about the lateness of the proposed budget, Bell said the board's two-person finance committee -- composed of Commissioners Ralph and Gail Hambrick -- have "virtually taken the county away from the chairman, and I have had to deal with what I have been given. I took all of the factors that Miss Jackson [the county finance director] gave me. There are some things that I should have had long before this, but it wasn't given to me," he said.

Ralph said that by law, the finance committee cannot "weigh in" on the budget ,and that "the power that the chairman has to do the budget is mandated by law."

Ralph said members of the board are still coming to terms with the proposed budget, and it would be "premature" to suggest alternate ways to make up for the $8 million funding deficit. He said he has asked department heads to submit suggestions as to how the budget can be balanced without dipping into general reserve funds.

"I believe it is irresponsible to balance the budget with general fund reserves," he said.

The proposed fiscal 2011 budget can be viewed publicly at the Clayton County Headquarters Library in Jonesboro, as well as the Clayton County branch libraries in Jonesboro, Riverdale, Lovejoy, and Morrow. For more information, call (770) 477-3208.