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Gainesville City Council faces tough cuts to balance budget

POSTED: February 8, 2009 12:09 a.m.

Charged with the need to cut the fat, Gainesville officials are finding they also have to cut into the meat of city government services to balance the 2010 budget.

Gainesville officials have four months to make difficult choices about how to best use their dwindling resources. City Manager Kip Padgett said those choices lie in deciding what services city government must provide.

"What is our basic service?" Padgett asked council members at a retreat last week. "... In this economy, what takes priority?"

The council has yet to answer Padgett’s question. But with reports of declining revenues, it soon won’t have a choice, and might ask for city residents’ help.

Padgett has proposed involving residents in the decision-making process, but did not elaborate on how to involve them.

"What do (residents) expect from us? Not what we as a staff and council expect, but what do our citizens expect and what are they willing to pay for?" Padgett asked.

At a retreat last week, council members acknowledged the challenges they face in the upcoming budget year, tossing around words like "streamlining" while mentioning that personnel costs account for nearly 70 percent of city expenditures.

"I really don’t want anyone to lose their jobs, but where is 70 percent of our budget?" Mayor Myrtle Figueras asked council members Friday. "That’s where the real hard choices are going to be, to me."

In its current budget year, the city prioritized by cutting each department’s budget 5 percent to make up for revenue shortfalls. Those cuts will help offset the more than $1.5 million shortfall in revenues, according to projections by Chief Financial Officer Melody Marlowe.

While nearly all the city’s revenue streams have suffered, sales tax revenues are down to a trickle, and are projected to come in nearly $670,000 under budget this year.

City officials don’t expect next year to be any better. Padgett warned Council that among its choices is deciding if and how much the "basic services" of government includes funding human service agencies like the North Georgia AIDS Alliance and Rape Response, or recreational facilities like the Chattahoochee Golf Course and the Georgia Mountains Center.

"We’re in a lower economy; we want to maintain financial stability; we’ve got to balance; we’ve got to have a balancing act more than we ever have in years past," Padgett said. "How do we go about that has to do with choices."

Most council members agree that human service and recreational expenses are quality of life services that are essential to future economic growth.

"That’s what keeps us going. That’s why we’ve got seven industrial parks," Padgett said. "... We have got to keep encouraging economic development even in these times because we’ve got to keep jobs created to keep those funds coming."

Yet quality of life services may be the first to face the carving block.

"I think the whole point, though, is that all of these organizations do great things, certainly, but then when you’re in economic conditions the way we are today, then hey, you need to look and say ‘can we continue to do that this year?’" Council member Robert "Bob" Hamrick said. "We may suspend it a year and then pick it back up next year."

Other council members agreed with Hamrick.

"We’ve got a deficit of a million and a half dollars. That’s not insignificant and I think we really need to take a hard, hard, careful look at these things and decide whether we can do it this year," George Wangemann said.

"It’s just like a family budget: If you can afford it, you can do it, but if you can’t afford it, which I don’t think we can, how can you do it? Where’s the money going to come from?"

Figueras said she will only agree to cuts to human service agencies if all other recipients of government funding face the same belt-tightening.

"If we’re really going to be honest about our real choices, then let’s look at the whole thing instead of just singling out one or two," Figueras said.



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