Friday, May 22, 2009

Oconee Public Hearing on Budget Set for Tuesday

Not a Routine Year

The public will be given a chance to comment on the proposed 2010 Fiscal Year Budget during a scheduled half-hour hearing Tuesday night at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

Almost no details of the budget have been released to the public or discussed in the media, so it is unlikely the few citizens who show up at the 6:30 p.m. hearing will have much to say.

That’s not because the budget is likely to be a routine one.

Commissioner Chuck Horton said to me in response to questions I asked him on Thursday that the commissioners are being told the projected revenue from all sources for the budget starting July 1 will be about $21 million.

That is $2 million less than the county expected to collect this year and $4 million less than the county had budgeted to spend this year. The budget approved for fiscal year 2008-2009 drew $2 million from county reserves to cover the $25.2 million in projected general fund expenditures.

According to a report county Finance Director Jeff Benko gave to the BOC on April 21, the county had collected $17.3 million as of the end of the first three-quarters of the year, or 75 percent of the expected revenue.

Benko told the board, however, that he was projecting a $1.2 million shortfall in general fund revenue by the fiscal year’s end on June 30.

Collections from the penny-per-dollar Local Option Sales Tax--one important source of county General Fund revenue--have been running behind most of this year and were down $127,580 in April compared with a year earlier.

The county has frozen spending in many categories to bring expenses in line with revenue.

The Utility Department, which operates with its own budget, had collected only $3.7 million during the first nine months of last year, Benko reported. That represented 57 percent of income, versus the expected 75 percent.

Utility Department Director Chris Thomas told the BOC at a budget meeting on April 15 that he needs a 32 percent increase in base water rates and a 24 percent increase in base sewer rates as part of his budget for 2009-2010.

Commissioners in short order will have to approve that budget and the rate increases as well as figure out how to deal with the $4 million General Fund shortfall. They can cut back on expenses, dip again into the reserves, increase property taxes or do some combination of these.

The budget is supposed to be in place by July 1, and the first item on the BOC agenda at the regular meeting on Tuesday night is the 2010 Fiscal Year Budget.

That meeting starts immediately behind the official public hearing, meaning the public will be commenting without the information given to the commissioners only a few minutes later.

Among the missing pieces of information is the Tax Digest, or the estimated worth of property in the county. The value of property in the county determines the amount of money a set property tax will produce.

The Athens paper has written extensively about budget problems in Athens-Clarke County but largely ignored the problems in Oconee. The local weeklies have been even worse.

Without more information, the public isn’t in a very good position to ask tough questions about the budget at the required legal public hearing Tuesday. Only a half hour has been set aside at any rate.