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Jonesboro mayor: Cuts affect 'every department'

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Everything from personnel in the Jonesboro Police Department, to the city's giant Christmas tree, have reason to fear possible budget cuts, according to city officials.

Jonesboro officials are scheduled to consider a proposed budget when the city council meets for a work session on Nov. 29. Mayor Luther Maddox said discussions are underway on how to cut $300,000 from the 2011 budget. The city is expected to receive $2.4 million in revenues, but needs to spend $2.7 million at the same time, he said. The new budget goes into effect on Jan. 1. The budget has to be balanced under state law, he added.

There has been talk that the police department will make major cuts, including eliminating positions, and cutting expenditures on equipment. The mayor said no department is safe from budget reductions. "The police department is the largest department in the city, so it's natural to assume it will have to make some cuts, but the truth is, every department is going to have to make some cuts," Maddox said. "We haven't decided anything, yet. Everything is being considered, at this point."

Maddox said it is possible the city's police department could take one of the biggest hits, simply because it is the largest department in the city. Police Chief Franklin Allen said there are 23 people who work in the department.

Allen is in the process of creating a plan to present to the city council, on Nov. 29. He said there is a possibility that three positions in the department, including two police officer jobs, will be eliminated. According to Allen, the elimination of the three positions will save the city about $131,000. "The layoffs are being discussed as an option," he said.

Public hearings on the budget will follow in December, city officials said. Jonesboro Councilman Roger Grider suggested that a vote on approving the budget likely will take place in late December. Councilwoman Pat Sebo said possible cuts include eliminating the city's summer concert series, not putting up Christmas decorations next year, one furlough day per month for city employees, and police officers no longer being allowed to take patrol cars home.

"I'm encouraging city employees and residents to attend the meeting on the 29th," Sebo said. "These people need to be aware of what's going on. This is greatly affecting how their lives are run."

Grider said cuts to the police department may not lead to a reduction in the number of officers patrolling the streets. He said the department has become top-heavy in management, and so administrative positions, including two lieutenant positions, and one sergeant's position, could be cut.

Grider said there are, seemingly, enough administrators for every patrol officer to have his, or her, own supervisor. "We've either got officers who need a lot of supervision, or we have too many managers," he said.

People in those eliminated positions would then be bumped down in rank, Grider said, which would mean that some officers with low rank, and little to no seniority, likely would lose their jobs.

He conceded it would be up to Police Chief Allen to make that decision. Allen said that he has discussed the option with the officers who have been on the force for the least amount of time. "They were shocked and stunned," he said.

The police department's line items and spending also will be affected, said Allen. Line items include vehicle repair, office supplies, uniforms, and equipment such as radar units, and gun belts.

Grider said city employees "can't just be sacred cows. They're just going to have to accept the economy affects them, too."

Jonesboro is not alone in having to look at making deep budget cuts. Clayton County Public Schools and Clayton County government officials instituted major cuts earlier this year, to tackle steep budget shortfalls.

Compounding the issue in Jonesboro, some city officials said, is the lack of a property tax for the last few years, to help generate revenue.

Just last month, Maddox and City Finance Clerk Sandra Meyers asked the city council to agree to restore a property tax, setting the city's millage rate at 2 mills for 2011. The council defeated that request a 4-to-2 vote. Maddox said the proposed millage rate would have generated an additional $185,000 in revenue for the city.

"When the majority of the council voted against raising the millage rate, it decided it would rather cut expenses," Maddox said on Wednesday.

Grider, who voted against raising the millage rate, said with a homestead tax exemption of $60,000, businesses would have to pay the bulk of the property taxes.

"They are having to take money out of their own pocket to keep their businesses afloat," he said. "We don't need to put an additional burden on them. I think that will chase some businesses out of town. We need to look in-house to make these budget cuts."

Sebo, who voted in favor of raising the millage rate, said not having a rate has not attracted businesses to the city, and she questioned her colleagues' rationale for refusing to raise the millage. "A city cannot operate without collecting property taxes," she said.

She later added, "Each department has cut just about to the bone, and we're still in a position where we're going to have a shortfall."

Allen asserted, however, that budget cuts will not reduce police services or delivery to the community. "We will continue to maintain the highest level of service," he said. He later added "It will be a hard climb to get back up, but I'm prepared, and willing, to see it through."