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City squares off against $1M budget shortfall
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Hinesville City Council members, the mayor, city manager and department heads met Tuesday to deal with a $1.1 million shortfall in the general fund during the annual budget workshop at city hall.
When the two-hour workshop ended, Mayor Jim Thomas said the city’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 still was $18,101 from balancing the general fund. This proposed budget will be voted on by the city council at its Oct. 18 meeting.
Officials reduced the shortfall through line-item adjustments, such as cutting out all non-mandated education and training with its associated travel expenses; reducing budgets for all departments as well the city’s contribution to the Liberty County transit system and the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce; and a proposal to raise the millage rate for property taxes “up to but no more than 1 mil,” according to City Manager Billy Edwards.
“What we’re trying to do is reduce our deficit,” said Thomas as budget discussions began by focusing on contributions to the transit system with proposals to change routes and cut route frequency, which totaled $294,882 in savings. “We’re still going to provide services where they’re needed. Later on, we may be able to expand services.”
Sonny Timmerman, director of the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission, noted that the LCPC’s total budget was down by $13,000 from last year. He said he hasn’t given any raises in three years.
Probably the item the leaders visited longest was what kind of merit or cost-of-living raises the city could afford to give its employees. Councilman Keith Jenkins and Mayor Pro Tem Charles Frasier, who was participating via teleconference, expressed concerns about the city meeting contractual  obligations to its employees.
The negotiations concluded with an agreement to remove employee merit increases and Christmas bonuses, but to give employees a 1.5-percent cost-of-living increase. Councilmen Jason Floyd, David Anderson and Kenneth Shaw were in accord with Jenkins and Frasier’s concerns, but all agreed it was the best they could do for city employees and taxpayers.
“Gentlemen, it’s really easy to cut, but you’ve got to live by it,” Edwards said as they began the line-item adjustments.
They cut budget expenses, department by department, line by line. The first item on the chopping block was non-mandated training and associated travel expenses. Some departments, such as the fire and finance departments, could not reduce training because their employees require current certification.
Nonetheless, Fire Chief Lamar Cook noted he was able to reduce his department’s training and travel expenses by $5,200. The public-relations office reduced its training and travel expenses by $2,700.
Other expenses, such as right-of-way maintenance and ditch-cutting work in communities outside Hinesville, were addressed line by line, whether it was city administration or the police department. Edwards said even though this change decreased revenue by $44,873, it freed up 40 man-hours per week in labor costs.
Another savings included each department agreeing not to fill new vacancies without first coming before the city council to determine if that position really had to be filled this fiscal year.
The one item most responsible for reducing the budget shortfall was the proposal to raise the property-tax millage rate by as much as 1 mil. Edwards said the projected increase would generate $558,000 in revenue for the city, based on last year’s property-tax digest. Thomas added the revenue might be even higher, given the new homes that have been built in the past year.
At the conclusion of negotiations, Chief Financial Officer Kimberly Ryon said they were close to balancing the shortfall, but there was no room for error. Thomas agreed, noting the city’s general fund has no cushion to fall back on.
“It’s been a tough year,” said Thomas before calling to adjourn the meeting. “I want to thank all of you and all our employees for their hard work.”

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