Augusta considers options to balance budget

By  | 

After years of dipping into the reserve fund, the city of Augusta is looking at making some serious cuts in services.

"It's time now to quit spending the savings and adjust our lifestyle," says city administrator Fred Fussell.

Considering that they're $5 million in the red, the cuts could have a big impact on everyone.

The nearly $5 million budget shortfall has Augusta city leaders looking for ways to get more bang for their buck...but it could mean scaling way back on services.

There's no simple answer for the budget shortfall. Pay raises, high gas prices, and uncollected taxes all play a part.

But now, city leaders say there's no need to look back. Rather, they should focus on how they can quickly fix the problem.

And even though this is an election year, they know some tough choices will have to be made.

"When you consider a $5 million budget deficit, that is a huge issue to the community," says Augusta mayor Deke Copenhaver.

It's a critical crunch leaving city leaders between a rock and a hard place.

"We are going to have to make cuts," Copenhaver says. "There is no doubt in my mind."

A deep budget shortfall has the commission digging for ways to get out of a $4.8 million hole.

Right now, Mayor Copenhaver is tying together a committee to solve the deficit dilemma.

"We need the best and brightest financial minds in the community addressing this issue," he says.

Preliminary discussions have brought talk of cutting the city's parks and recreation and public transit departments. Both are losing money. But city administrator Fred Russell says no department or job is free from the chopping block.

"Pretty much everything is on the table, and each specific area has to be able to prove the work that they bring to the table," he says.

With such a budget crunch, city leaders say it only makes matters worse when you don't pay Uncle Sam.

"We have got to go after the people who have not paid their tax bills as well," Copenhaver says.

The Tax Commissioners Office says there are about 6000 of you who haven't paid your taxes, accounting for nearly $2.6 million of the deficit.

And speaking of taxes, raising them again is an option. Marion Williams says he may support that, but only if it will make a substantial difference.

"I don't think we ought to keep inching and inching," says commissioner Marion Williams. "If you're going to raise taxes, you can raise them, so we don't have to keep coming back and raise them again."

But as the mayor explains, raising taxes still will not solve this pressing problem.

"We could not raise taxes enough to cover the budget deficit," he says. "That is a terrible situation to be in."

The city administrator says there have already been major reductions in city travel and office supplies. He says he anticipates around 50 jobs being cut. Some commissioners are also recommending rescinding half of the eight percent raises they approved for county employees.

This is not the first time there's been a committee formed to make cuts. Back in 1981, the city was in a major budget crisis. A committee was formed, but no cuts were made.

The mayor says this time he's positive there will be.

This is not the first time the city has been in financial trouble.

In 2005, leaders were staring down an $8 million deficit.

Then, they used a tax increase, salary lapses, and a $1.5 million dip into reserve funds to balance it.

They also used reserve funds to help with more than $3 million shortfalls in both 2004 and 2003.