Gainesville’s City Council is now faced with the choice of whether it can continue to shave expenses from its budget or if fiscal year 2011 will be a year of more significant cuts.
In its one-day planning retreat Monday, the council acknowledged that the upcoming budget year, which begins July 1, may be one of reduced city services.
"This is going to be the toughest budget year that I’ve worked with," said Melody Marlowe, Gainesville’s director of administrative services.
After a brief look at the city’s financial picture Monday morning, council members discussed how they might address deeper cuts if low revenues continue.
While no specific mention was made of city services that could be cut, Mayor Ruth Bruner said services like police and fire protection as well as street maintenance and trash collection were essential. Council members also expressed the need to keep the Public Utilities Department’s budget intact, but the utilities department does not rely on the city’s general fund, which is funded mostly with property and sales taxes.
Already, it is likely that the current fiscal year’s revenues will come in under budget, Marlowe said. Revenues from building permits and zoning fees are even lower than in fiscal year 2009, and sales tax collections are expected to come in more than $200,000 lower this year than last. In the past two years, the city’s revenues have declined from approximately $29 million to $24.5 million.
Still, City Manager Kip Padgett told the council he felt the city’s financial situation is "better than decent."
The city is still holding on to about $1.2 million meant for capital projects until revenues stabilize, Marlowe said.
It may be two or three years before those projects see the light of day, Padgett said.
"The more we delay them, we’re going to have to catch up at some point," he said.
So far, city employees are subject to one unpaid day off a month, but layoffs have affected less than 1 percent of the city’s total workforce of about 700 employees, Padgett said.
"These are challenging times, but the good thing about it is we can step back and look at ourselves and see where we can improve," Padgett said.
But deciding how to cut won’t come easy as the city begins its planning process for the 2011 fiscal year.
Councilman George Wangemann said planning for this year’s budget may mean scrutinizing how many people each city service serves, and consider cutting those that impact the fewest people.
"To me, there should be no sacred cows," Wangemann said.
But Councilman Danny Dunagan disagreed; he said the city could not afford to cut its police and fire departments much more.
But the Georgia Mountains Center, which used about $139,000 of the city’s general fund revenue this year to keep its doors open, is already down to "bare bones staff," Padgett said.
"It’d be great to do away with that transfer, but I don’t see that happening in the next few years," Padgett said.
Still, some City Council members want to explore new programs this year. Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras said she hoped the city could explore new ways to help its youth and lower income families. She said cuts to the city’s funding of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center could deprive residents of necessary services. The Community Service Center received about $500,000 of city tax dollars this year, Padgett said.
"We need to see value over money if we’re going to maintain and be Gainesville," Figueras said.
Bruner added that, at the least, the city could spend the year planning for future programs and projects.
"We can look at programs that maybe don’t cost a lot ... but can give us a better feeling about the city," Bruner said.