If there was one consistent theme among the Clayton County employees appearing before county commissioners on Tuesday, it was that they were willing to see their property taxes raised, if it meant their pay would not be cut by 4 percent.
During a public hearing on the budget, several county employees told commissioners a proposed pay cut for full-time workers is unacceptable. The cut has been proposed as part of the county's fiscal year 2011 budget, to help offset a projected $8 million shortfall.
The pay-reduction proposal came from Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell. He said the cut, added to a dip into the county's revenue reserves, would help allow the county to submit a balanced budget to the state.
The 4 percent salary cut would equal $4.5 million in savings. The remainder of the shortfall would be offset by taking money out of the county's general fund reserves, Bell told the Clayton News Daily on Tuesday.
Many of the employees maintain that they have not received pay raises in six years, and argued that they would rather see their property taxes go up, than watch their salaries go down. Last year, the county raised its millage rate — which is the local property tax — by three mills.
"I would prefer a tax increase, so all of us can shoulder this burden together," said Delia Jones, a Rex resident. Jones, has been a tax specialist in the county Tax Commissioner's office for the last nine years. "Not everyone that lives in Clayton County works for the county, but they have been getting pay raises while we have not. They can much more afford a tax increase than we can afford to have our salaries cut." Hers was a sentiment expressed by many.
The commissioners are scheduled to vote on adoption of the proposed budget at their next meeting, on June 29. The board must submit the budget to state officials by June 30.
While there is an anticipated shortfall, the county's operating budget already is expected to be cut by $181 million, from $448 million, down to $267 million. The general fund budget is already expected to be cut by $10 million, from $179 million, to $169 million.
Other expected cuts include a $500,000 decrease to the county's vehicle replacement reserves. It was $1.3 million last year. Also, a $411,763 reduction of the parks and recreation fund that was $1.12 million last year, and a $7,000 decrease in the county's juvenile supplemental services fund that was $29,000 last year.
Clayton County Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin said he was "surprised" and "appalled" at the proposed salary cuts, and he objected to his employees making less money. "I have to stand by them, and say we need to do better," Baskin said.
Kliff Grimes, the local representative from the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, suggested commissioners consider making cuts to "the pet projects that helped get you elected," rather than the salaries of public safety workers. He added, that pay cuts could hurt public safety in the county.
"Some of those officers are going to leave, and go somewhere else," Grimes said.
Cynthia Bernard, a park maintenance worker for the county for the last three years, said her lack of pay raises means some people being hired now in her department are making the same amount of money she earns. "I feel I have some seniority over them," Bernard said.
As county employees spoke, commissioners listened, but did not address the audience during the hearing. Afterward, Chairman Bell said pay cuts are not set in stone at this point, and the budget could change, based on discussions among members of the county commission.
When asked about raising taxes, Bell did not rule it out as a possible way of avoiding salary cuts for the employees. "I'm open to all options that will save them from losing pay," he said. "I wanted to hear from my board, and the people of the county."
The proposed budget can be viewed at the Clayton County Library System's headquarters branch, as well as local branches in Jonesboro, Lovejoy, Morrow and Riverdale.