County officials across state see 'most challenging year' grappling with budgets|
Georgia Online News Service
Lamar Paris is surrounded by exquisite scenery in the Georgia mountains, but the distance doesn't insulate him from what happens at the state Capitol.
Paris is the sole commissioner of Union County, one of nine such single county commissioners left in Georgia government. It means he is both head politician and county manager. Most days, he says, it's a good job: "You get things done."
But these are not most days, and Paris, a man who tries to see the positives, is troubled by the cloudy state budget forecast coming out of Atlanta.
The state budget of nearly $20 billion has a $2 billion hole that must be closed either by increasing revenue through taxes and fees or by decreasing expenditures through cuts in projects and programs.
Among the cuts proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue is the elimination of about $428 million in rebates to local governments and schools to help cover some of the tax reduction produced by homestead exemptions.
If approved by the Legislature, the budget-tightening measure would cost Union County and its school system about $640,000 in revenue, although lawmakers already have given signs that it might fail or could result in a compromise, such as a phase-out that would yield at least another year of rebates.
Perdue put the payments on hold in August, so most governments already had figured the money in their operating budgets for 2009.
In Union County, the loss would have to be made up by a tax increase of about $115 per household in county and school taxes, Paris said. Because the county has the second-lowest tax rate in Georgia, that estimate is on the low end, and most local governments say it would cost households an additional $200 to $300 on taxes they had paid.
"If I have to send through a supplemental tax bill, you may as well hang me from a tree," said Paris, who started his third term in January.
Already, just to compensate for revenue drops because of the economic downturn, he has held the Union County operating budget to about $15 million, put many projects on hold, laid off two Health Department workers and put the department on a one-day-a-month furlough.
"Come June, I could be looking at more throughout the county," Paris said.
"It depends on what they do down there" in the General Assembly in Atlanta.
South of Union County, on the edge of metro Atlanta, Cherokee County schools Supt. Frank R. Petruzielo said the district would take a hit of about $5.2 million on a $300 million operating budget if the measure passes. Earlier this year, Petruzielo cut $4.5 million from the school system budget.
"That $5.2 million would be devastating and in effect [would] be $10 million, because you have only half a year to do it," said Petruzielo, whose 37,000-student district operates on a fiscal year that begins July 1.
While the loss of the homestead rebate could be the single worst news for schools and local governments, other proposed state cuts would have a cumulative effect.
A bill to peg property appraisals to a sale price and to cap reassessment growth at 3 percent annually could constrict revenue further, if passed.
"While the state may get itself through this crisis, we are absolutely having our hands tied behind our back," Petruzielo said. "The state is going to short us a whole lot of money this year and the year after, and when local revenue drops – and probably lasts for a three-year period – we're going to be in a financial straitjacket."
Sam Olens, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, said he worries about how much Georgia will pay counties to house state prisoners.
The Department of Corrections is scheduled for a cut of some 10 percent, including the closing of four prisons.
"I'm fearful of the fact that the state is paying 20 bucks a day for an inmate who costs us $40," said Olens, who has been weighing a 2010 run for governor as a Republican but has not declared. Education funding, at both the local and the college level, would be pared by more than $500 million over two years, under the governor's proposal.
Perdue's other recommended cuts include the public defender system, hazardous waste clean-up money, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Public Safety.
"No matter what happens, people are going to see a tax increase in the check they write to local government," said John Scott, the Bullock County tax assessor, who also is executive director of the Georgia Association of Assessing Officials. "The money may not be there, but there are still just as many ambulance calls, demands for police services, courts to support."
And the worse the economy gets, the deeper the hole will get. Fee collections on permit applications already are down, and any spending stall erodes tax collections on personal property and inventory, which, with real estate, makes up a local government's tax.
"Two thousand, nine will be the most challenging year we have ever faced," Scott said, "but 2010 could be worse if things do not turn around."
In his 32 years of journalism, Tom Opdyke has been a reporter and editor in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Denver and Allentown, Pa. He spent 19 years with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution covering or directing coverage of government, politics, transportation and the environment. [full bio]