Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
A half dozen Clayton County department heads -- including the county's top prosecutor and tax commissioner -- have pleaded with the county commissioners not to approve 14 furlough days as part of the fiscal year 2012 budget.
The protests came Wednesday during the commission's first public hearing on the county's proposed $267 million budget, which is mostly tied up in the $162.5 million general fund budget. In addition to furloughing employees for what amounts to half a month of work, the spending plan includes a millage-rate increase of 3 mills.
The budget is $5.6 million smaller than the county's amended fiscal year 2011 budget, according to a budget packet county officials handed out to attendees at the public hearing.
"In order to balance the budget, we will have to raise the millage rate by 2.5 mills, to 18.952 mills, then raise the fire fund by 0.5 mills, to 4.4 mills, and finally we will also have to implement 14 furlough days for all county employees," County Finance Director Angela Jackson told commissioners.
The county commission is scheduled to vote on adopting the budget during a special called meeting, on Wednesday, June 29, at 4 p.m., in the commissioner's boardroom, at 112 Smith St., in Jonesboro. The budget is slated to go into effect on July 1, and run through June 30, 2012.
If the 14 furlough days are approved, it would save the county $4.9 million in employee salaries, wages and benefits, according to the county's budget packet. But, District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson, Probate Judge Pam Ferguson and Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin, argued that the commission had already taken enough away from employees in past budgets.
"They haven't gotten a raise in years, and their pay is already 25 percent down from what it should be," Lawson said. "If you furlough them for 14 days, their pay will be another 7 percent below what it should be next year."
Ferguson warned commissioners that employee morale was down, and the commission risks running off employees. "These people are what makes the county operate," she said. "They are what causes the county to keep going ... If everybody leaves, the five of you can't run the county on your own."
Baskin told commissioners to stop playing political games, after they argued at one point during the hearing over who gets to be involved in the process of setting a budget for the county. The tax commissioner, who has been at odds with some commissioners before, offered to meet with them, to help find a budget solution that did not involve furlough days. "We've got to put our personal agendas aside, and find a better way to address this issue," Baskin said.
While a couple of commissioners said they understand how hard county employees work, only Commissioner Michael Edmondson expressed outright opposition to the furloughs, and offered an alternative to taking days off.
Edmondson explained that because home values are down this year, the amount of money people would have to pay in property taxes will be down, even with a 2.5-mill millage -rate increase. County Finance Director Angela Jackson's budget presentation included a section in which she told commissioners the average property tax bill will go from $446 in fiscal year 2011, to $218.78 in fiscal year 2012.
Edmondson said increasing the millage rate 4.5 mills, instead of 2.5 mills would keep property tax revenue at its fiscal year 2011 level. "If we set the millage rate so taxes don't decrease, or only modestly decrease, then, we don't have to implement furlough days," he said.
Jackson said she was told by County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell to include the 14 furlough days, and the 2.5-mill millage rate increase in the budget.
Bell, conversely, said he was against furloughing employees, while also saying furloughs are necessary to balance the budget. "I stand by my recommendation ... we will have a balanced budget," he said.
The chairman stressed after the public hearing, however, that he was "not talking out of both sides of my face" when he said he was against furloughing the employees, while also standing by his recommendation for furlough days.
He said there had been another option for cutting the budget, which involved the sale of an unspecified piece of real estate. But, he said "the other commissioners rejected it" during one of their closed-door executive sessions.
Bell and other county officials had confirmed earlier this year that the county was in preliminary talks to sell the county-owned Tara Field airport, which is located in Henry County, to Henry County's government.
He declined on Wednesday, however, to identify the real estate he was talking about, leaving it up to speculation as to whether he is talking about the airport, or some other piece of county property.
Bell said he plans to bring up the real estate proposal again, at the June 29 special called meeting. He added that if the commissioners approve it, he expects the proposed furloughs will be taken off the table.