County must look at its budgetary crisis with ‘business sense’

Published 7:46 am Friday, May 24, 2013

After sitting through a 2.5-hour Decatur County Commission budget workshop on Thursday afternoon, I came away from scratching my head and realizing what key ingredient is missing from our county government. We are sorely missing a basic business sense and approach to our county’s finances.

As any business owner or operator discovers very quickly, the key to success is to minimize non-revenue producing expenses while maximizing and fully supporting activities and aspects of the business that create revenue.

Obviously, government finances do not totally mimic the finances of a for-profit entity, but the basic philosophies remain the same.

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During Thursday’s workshop, County Administrator Gary Breedlove recommended that funding be eliminated from the Industrial Development Authority. He also recommended that funding be eliminated from three other entities — the collaboration between Decatur County, the City of Bainbridge, and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau that recruits bass fishing tournaments; Bainbridge Bikefest; and The Pines, the county-owned, independently operated golf course.

All four of the groups on that list generate revenue. And the county desperately needs to increase revenue. During the meeting, Breedlove indicated that one of the driving forces behind the county’s financial woes was the decline in SPLOST and LOST sales tax revenues. Yet, our idea is to eliminate funding to those groups that generate sales tax revenues.

Just last week, Adrienne Harrison, Executive Director of the Bainbridge Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as this area’s lead fishing tournament recruiter, gave a report to the full county commission on the economic impact fishing tournaments bring to our county.

In the past year, $39,000 in public money was spent to recruit and hold fishing tournaments. Those tournaments resulted in an economic impact of $1.6 million. To me, that’s a very impressive return. For every dollar spent, $40 was generated. But, the $9,000 that the county contributes to that effort in a year was on the chopping block.

If you notice on your property tax statements, there is a separate line item for the IDA to receive one-quarter of a mil, roughly $188,000. The proposal was to “shift” that amount from the IDA back into the county’s general fund.

Breedlove’s reasoning is that the county has no money and the IDA “has $1 million in the bank.”

That $1 million figure is not exactly accurate. According to the 2012 audited financial report, the IDA has $177,000 cash on hand and $601,000 in assigned cash. The funds labeled as assigned cash are about to be spent on the down payment of the Traco building. That building will, in turn, become the new home to a new industry in the coming months that will put up to 250 people to work and generate much-needed tax revenue.

Also included in that $1 million figure is $248,681 that has been allocated to the IDA but never actually paid by the county.

Luckily, that recommendation yielded support from none of the commissioners and the funding for the IDA will remain. But, the IDA will pay for some of the repairs to the waste-water treatment facility at the Industrial Park, in return for keeping the funding — an essentially neutral budget move for the county.

The worst thing the county could do at this point is to turn its back on industry recruitment and job creation. The message would be clear to any industry looking to expand or relocate. We will talk the talk, but not walk the walk, as they say.

Make no mistake, the county is in financial dire straits and changes must be made to improve the situation. And those changes must include the lowest possible tax increase.

I would suggest the county look in non-strategic, or non-revenue-producing, areas to gain additional traction. I urge the county to continue a serious study of privatizing the EMS ambulance service. It seems to me that only a cursory look has been taken so far and we need to analyze, in depth, this option, as there are savings to be had.

I would also suggest studying the possibility of eliminating the county’s building department. Not the actual processes, but the department. Look to the City of Bainbridge and their arrangement with a private company that handles those duties, at a significant savings.

Also, look closely at either leasing or selling the county’s landfill. According to several of the commissioners, private waste management companies are interested in operating our landfill. One estimate is that the landfill is worth $40 million to $60 million. I would begin process of studying that possibility tomorrow, if not sooner.

Think like a business owner and we could continue to promote growth, increase revenue, and cut expenses, while keeping property taxes at a minimum.