News Column

Public hearing on Chatham County budget set for today

May 23, 2014

By Marcus E. Howard, Savannah Morning News, Ga.



May 23--A public hearing on Chatham County's proposed fiscal year 2015 budget is scheduled at 9:30 a.m. today at the Old County Courthouse, 124 Bull St., on Wright Square.

County staff have recommended marginally increasing the general fund and special service district budgets by 0.93 percent and 0.65 percent, respectively. No tax increase is recommended.

This year's budgeting process incorporated a zero-based budgeting approach, championed by County Commission Chairman Al Scott. The review process included a total examination of department spending as opposed to traditional budgeting that primarily focuses on new spending.

The new zero-based process is expected to take two years to fully implement but could save the county as much as $1.5 million in recommended cuts this first year, according to county officials.

On June 3, heads of county departments and other entities who receive county funding will have a chance to make their case for discretionary funding during a budget workshop from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. A final vote on the budget will take place June 27.

The county's fiscal year runs July 1 through June 30.

A general fund budget of $164.8 million has been proposed, while the recommended budget of the unincorporated area's special service district is $29.5 million. The current millage rates are 11.908 and 4.13, respectively.

One of the most significant changes to the general fund, which pays for operational expenses, is $2 million for a new employee merit pay program, which commissioners will vote on today. A regular full-time or part-time employee who at least "meets job requirements" on a performance evaluation would be eligible for a pay increase.

The budget also includes a $1.2 million increase in the cost of employee health insurance. The county estimates it will spend about $12,525 per employee, compared to $11,600 currently.

Other increases include the addition of 14 employees for the new Garden City library opening this summer, pay increases and added positions at the Aquatic Center and an additional $150,000 for Juvenile Court indigent defense costs. The state is to pay for an indigent defense coordinator.

Related but smaller increases are included in the proposed special service district budget.

Last year, commissioners were divided about raising taxes to pay for Sheriff Al St Lawrence's request for more correctional officers at the expanded jail. Though the findings of an external audit in February recommended 415 personnel at full use, funding in the new budget has been made for just three new officers.

The proposed 2015 budget also includes "traditional costs" associated with the county manager position, including retirement and termination pay benefits. County Manager Lee Smith, who began work May 12, is expected to be paid a salary of $195,000.

Though Smith was approved as county manager on April 11, the commission, according to its meeting agenda, is scheduled to "confirm" him today.

Officials say the budget also reflects savings from a number of measures instituted over the past year, including $750,000 in inmate health care costs after a contract was renegotiated. Another $600,000 is projected to be saved in jail utility costs. Additionally, the county recently found out the county-wide 2014 property tax digest experienced a 1.54 percent increase, translating to $2 million in added revenue not reflected in the proposed budget. However, the unincorporated area's tax digest decreased by .06 percent.

While a $653,000 request in additional Animal Control services -- including for four officers, five caretakers, one supervisor and piece of equipment -- has been made by Savannah-Chatham police, the county, which funds Animal Control, reported that a final decision has not been made, though funding from land lease revenue is being explored.

Fiscal year 2015 will be the first full year of local option sales tax collections after a new agreement among local governments was approved in March 2013. The county projects it will collect $13.6 million. It also expects over the next year, beginning Oct. 1, to take in $15.5 million out of a total $41.8 million in special purpose local option sales tax revenue from the 1 percent sale tax extended by voters in November.

The county last year projected $370 million in SPLOST revenue would be collected over the next six years.

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(c)2014 Savannah Morning News (Savannah, Ga.)

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Source: Savannah Morning News (GA)


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