Commissioners face new budget dilemma

Published 9:31 pm Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Decatur County Commissioners face a dilemma as they prepare the budget for their next fiscal year, which begins July 1: raise property taxes or cut services that citizens and businesses had come to expect before the economic recession began.

County Finance Director Carl Rowland and at least two commissioners—Earl Perry and Russell Smith—said Tuesday that raising taxes may be necessary to cover a $900,000 shortfall in an approximately $32 million proposed budget. On the other hand, Board of Commissioners Chairman Palmer Rich and Commissioner Butch Mosely said they were strongly opposed to raising taxes in light of the financial hardships facing many citizens.

After holding an informal budget workshop before their regular meeting on Tuesday night, commissioners could only agree to direct Perry and Smith to meet again with Rowland, County Administrator Tom Patton and the leaders of county government departments. Their mission will be to determine a method for reducing the budget by approximately $900,000, the amount proposed spending exceeds anticipated revenue.

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Perry and Smith, who comprise the board’s finance committee, both said they believed it would be very difficult to reduce the budget by the necessary amount without cutting services. Commissioner Mosely suggested there were two ways to trim the budget: by reducing each department’s budget by an equal percentage to make up the shortfall, or to eliminate expenditures by reviewing the budget line-by-line.

Perry and Smith, who said they spent eight days going over past expenses and proposed budget figures with department heads and elected officials, both said they had found the budget drafting tough because the department leaders felt there were few non-essential expenses left to cut.

At the workshop’s start, Perry announced that he and Rowland had learned earlier on Tuesday that an amendment to Georgia’s constitution to allow conservation of large forest land for tax purposes would cause the county to lose $450,000 or more in annual revenue. Perry said that according to Tax Commissioner Don Belcher and Tax Appraiser Ruth Eakin, land valued at approximately $35 million has been placed into conservation in Decatur County already and more landowners are expected to take advantage of the new tax exemption.

Mosely said he believed services wouldn’t be affected unless commissioners reduced the number of county employees, which he said wouldn’t happen. Rich said he opposed raising property taxes because of the state government taking away homeowner tax relief grants, which will result in an average $165 to $200 higher tax bill for Decatur County property owners.