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Bulloch County Commission to hold hearing to gather input on the proposed budget

    This evening, Bulloch County citizens will have the opportunity to review the county budget and offer input and opinions. Likely some will also offer views on Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch's recommendation to commissioners that taxes be increased to accommodate county needs.
    The pubic hearing will be held at 5:30 p.m. at the Bulloch County Annex.
    Couch and commissioners met last week for a workshop with county department heads to listen to their views, and to ask whether their budgets could survive a 10 percent or 20 percent cut. Almost every department head said a cut would be devastating to their budget, and gave commissioners explanations why.
    Couch said the meeting was "an unprecedented step" because it was the first time ever commissioners had a meeting with all the department managers.
    The meeting was called because "it is going to be difficult to explain" the tax increase (to citizens) and the meeting would give county leaders a better explanation of what department heads need to meet services demanded.
    "This is a responsibility we all share, and that's why we're meeting today," he told the group last week.
    At an earlier county commission meeting, Couch recommended taxes be raised in addition to property valuation increases because the fund balance from which the county has been dipping for the past several years is almost depleted, he said.
    This year's reluctant recommendation to raise taxes followed severe cutbacks in budgets over the past few years as well. At the time, Couch explained those cutbacks as measures to avoid raising taxes.
    Department heads said Thursday they could not cut back any more without eliminating or severely slashing services.
    A 10 percent reduction in budget would result in layoffs for the Statesboro-Bulloch County Animal Shelter, Public Safety Director Ted Wynn said.  He asked for a supplemental request of $67,881 over the proposed baseline budget of $153,000, mainly due to the estimated $80,000 it will cost to cover a mandated move from euthanasia by gas chamber to euthanasia by injection. A 20 percent cut would mean not funding a veterinarian, which means there could be no euthanasia, since the method of euthanasia must be performed by a licensed person. "That would mean we would be a no-kill shelter," he said. That would also be a problem because "it never stops - they continue to come."
    Cutting funds for animal control would be disastrous as well, he said. Humane enforcement fielded over 3,000 calls last year, and if there were no humane enforcement, Bulloch County Sheriff's deputies would be answering calls. "Calls aren't going to stop," he said. "We owe it to the citizens as well as to the animals" to continue. A 10 percent cut would eliminate one officer; a 20 percent cut would eliminate two, he said.
    There are only two officers, but a third will be added this year, to be funded by the City of Statesboro, since the Bulloch County Humane Enforcement will be taking over city calls.
    The Humane Enforcement budget, which also includes vehicle maintenance and supplies as well as expenses, is proposed at $148,000.    
    Several department heads offered insight into their budget needs.

Tax office
    Tax commissioner James Deal cited rising costs of postage and other expenses as well as additional duties such as collecting sales taxes on vehicles and lapsed insurance fees as reasons his budget could not survive being cut. He told commissioners he needed salary increases for employees and new equipment. Deal's proposed budget for the tax commissioner's office is $505,000.
    "Can I cut my budget? No, and if we cut my budget, we will close our doors, and we can't do that, by law," he said.
    Deal reminded commissioners that over 64 percent of county revenues are generated from his office."We need extra personnel, but we can live without that for now," he said.

County attorney
    Staff Attorney Jeff Akins told commissioners "there's not a whole lot to my budget ... my salary, outside counsel, which is needed, and it's hard to predict - books and periodicals are outdated. Most of (materials needed) are computerized."
    Commissioner Roy Thompson asked whether he could salvage outdated law books and resell them, but Akins said "Not really. Once they're outdated it's really dangerous t o use them. Laws change and that requires new materials every year."
    When asked whether his department could absorb a budget cut, Akins said "I don't think so, not if I'm going to have adequate resources."
    Akins' proposed budget for fiscal year 2008 is $137,000, but he filed a supplemental request for an additional $2,953, making the proposed budget for his department about $140,000.

District attorney
    District Attorney Richard Mallard's proposed budget for fiscal year 2008 is $310,000. In 2004, the department's budget was only $75,317; in 2006 it was $150,000. The rise in budget reflects the extreme increase in crime in Bulloch County, he told commissioners.
    The main reason for the increases are personnel to handle the workload.
    "Needs have changed," he said. "We can't shut our doors and refuse cases. We will continue to operate regardless of what you give us."
    People move to Bulloch because of the level of public safety and "they like living here," he said. But "violent crime has increased in this county a lot, and there are more crime victims to serve, and more criminals to prosecute."

Solicitor
    State Court Solicitor Joey Cowart 's proposed budget is or $153,300. He said he needs an increase in salaries for employees and himself, since they all work overtime instead of hiring additional staff. "Weekend and nights are adding up," he said.
    Cowart sent in a budget proposal that was $2,740 lower than the baseline recommendation. "I believe our non-personnel items will go down," he said. "But we do need additional personnel. We have a higher level of crime." He did not request additional employees as a way to keep costs down, he said.

Magistrate court
    To cut the Magistrate court budget would "seriously overwork our remaining employees" and would mean laying off workers, said Magistrate Judge June Braswell. "It would lead to low morale, citizens not satisfied, and lower revenues. Please don't cut it further. We could not function. We are also at bare bones."
    With a baseline budget proposed at $491,000, Braswell filed a supplemental request for $39,840.
    "We have never asked for the moon," she said. "We just want to be able to function." The budget increase requested would enable the court to continue servicing the community. When Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil asked whether a cut in her department would "put a heavier burden on other courts," she said "I believe it ultimately would."

BCCI
    Bulloch County Correctional Institute head Billy Tompkins asked for additional money over the proposed baseline budget of $1,655,000 to the tune of $120,075, taking the proposed budget to around $1,700,000.
    He said he needed help for the kitchen and food, plus additional funds for building maintenance. Part of the budget would fund the addition of three offices, including computer equipment. The budget also covers clothing and janitorial supplies.
    Sixteen workers are needed to meet mandates of having three 24-hour posts, but they only have 12 employees currently, he said. Cutting the budget by 10 percent would end up in not meeting state mandates, and cutting it by 20 percent would mean "we'd probably be hunting convicts all over Bulloch County," he said.

Bulloch EMS
    Bulloch County EMS Director Lee Eckles said "There is no extravagance in our budget." Cutting the budget at all would result i not meeting the demands of citizens and would increase response times to emergencies. As it is, response times " are not desirable," he said, citing figures showing some calls took over 25 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.
    Eckles requested $185,836 over the proposed baseline budget of $1,825,000 for the EMS budget, which would open a substation to aid in response times, he said.

Bulloch Public Safety
    Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn has a proposed budget of $133,000 for the firefighting division, which is an eight percent increase over this year's budget. This will "just keep trucks rolling," he said. A 10 percent cut would close a fire station down - a 20 percent cut would result in two stations closing, he said.
    The proposed $35,000 emergency management budget couldn't be cut either, he said, since workers are on call "24-7" and personnel must keep up with mandated training and provide service at all times.

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