County budget vote sidelined for now

— Clayton County commissioners put the brakes on the adoption of their proposed $172.8 million fiscal year 2014 budget Tuesday because of questions about some of the planned spending.

Commissioners Sonna Singleton and Shana Rooks have questions about a planned hiring freeze on as many as 97 positions as well as take-home vehicles, respectively, and the county’s finance department will spend the next week gathering information for them.

“A couple of our commissioners have some questions and some concerns, so we’re going to address those concerns and bring it back for adoption, not next week, but the following week,” said Chief Financial Officer Ramona Thurman.

The last minute move will put the commission perilously close to the deadline for when it must adopt a new budget because their current one ends June 30. But commissioners want to be sure about the accuracy of the budget before they vote to put it into effect.

In an email to her colleagues, Singleton questioned whether the hiring freeze could meet its intended $6 million reduction in expenditures because some of the vacant positions are in departments run by other elected officials. The commission can’t require those officials to follow the hiring freeze because they are free to spend the money budgeted for their office as they see fit, she said.

“What that means is that even if we passed a freeze, we couldn't keep elected officials from spending personnel money in their budget,” Singleton wrote. “If you wanted to force a reduction in expenditures by elected officials, you would have to reduce their budget, not Other General Government.”

Singleton has asked that Thurman and her staff amend the budget to be about $178 million, with $6 million to be transferred from the county’s fund balance for personnel. She indicated in her email that some of the positions are for law enforcement officers.

Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said a hiring freeze won’t stop departments from hiring essential personnel, however. Department heads will be able to get the commission’s permission to fill positions deemed necessary.

“We’re not going to just shut down completely,” said Turner. “If a director says they need a position, then we’ll consider that position.”

Meanwhile, Rooks wants tighter controls on which employees drive county-owned vehicles to their homes in other counties. She said there are 214 vehicles taken out of the county. The county is responsible for the maintenance and, in at least some cases, fuel for those cars. Rooks said she has asked Thurman to provide her with figures on how much money the county spends on these vehicles.

“The taxpayers are paying for vehicles for people who don’t put tax dollars back into the county,” Rooks said.