City leaders discuss budget, recreation

Published 7:38 pm Friday, March 27, 2009

Although the U.S. financial crisis is still ongoing, the City of Bainbridge will likely avoid a budget shortfall, City Manager Chris Hobby said Thursday.

Hobby reported on the financial health of the municipal government at the Bainbridge City Council’s annual retreat, held Thursday and Friday at Georgia Veterans State Park on Lake Blackshear, Ga.

The city manager said there are some signs the economy is not declining as much as it had been last fall, although it is not yet clear when the economy will recover completely.

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Bainbridge’s sales tax receipts, which account for more than $2 million of the city’s annual revenue, have stabilized after being down as much as 9 percent in the last quarter of 2008, Hobby said.

Collections of sales tax are currently down by only about 1 percent compared with the same time last year. That’s important because the one-cent Local Option Sales Tax produces about twice as much revenue as property taxes levied by the city government, according to Mayor Mark Harrell.

After projecting the city would have a budget shortfall of more than $300,000 in January, Hobby said current revenue estimates show the city could see a six-figure surplus in its general fund, which pays for the day-to-day operation of city government.

Although a six-month future projection shows the general fund possibly losing up to $47,000 by the end of September, Hobby said he believes budget-cutting measures city leaders implemented earlier this year could still keep the city from having to dip into its reserve cash, which currently totals a little more than $5 million.

Future financial outlook

To keep the city’s budget sustainable in the future, it may have to look at reducing some of its staff through attrition—a gradual loss of employees through resignation or retirement, instead of layoffs, Hobby said.

Cutting city trash pickup from two days to one will also save some money, but the council may have to look at adjusting future water and sewer rates to keep pace with inflation, he said.

Now that the city is nearing completion on the first phase of its sewer master plan, with work on a second phase to begin later this year, hundreds of new sewer customers will begin to generate more revenue, according to Utilities Director Ronnie Parish.

When the city’s high-speed fiber optics data network goes online this summer, the county school system will begin paying more than $650,000 a year to use it. Other institutions, like Memorial Hospital, and potentially, local businesses, could use the network in the future and produce more revenue, Hobby said.

Construction of new sports facilities scheduled

Hobby said he expects new sports fields and basketball courts off Cox Avenue will be constructed by the end of this year. Land has already been cleared and prepared to make room for four new baseball/softball fields, two multipurpose fields, which could be used for soccer and other sports, six asphalt basketball courts and a new scoring and concessions building, according to Leisure Services Director Al Kelley.

The basketball courts and a skate park at Cheney Griffin Park are finally set to become a reality, as recreation improvements at Cheney Griffin Park and the Earle May Boat Basin could also begin by the end of 2009, Hobby told The Post-Searchlight.

The recreation improvements, part of work on a Waterfront Connectivity Master Plan that has been a major focus of every annual council retreat since 2005, are a good example of the meetings’ usefulness to city leaders, Hobby said.

“[The retreats] are one of the most important things we do as a group annually,” Hobby said. “During City Council meetings, there’s just not enough time to discuss some of our future plans.”

As part of the retreat, Hobby, the mayor and council also drafted a vision statement detailing what they would like to see Bainbridge become in 15 years’ time. The city’s leaders said they plan to publish and continue working on the vision statement in the near future.