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PTC gets to work on trimming budget

In their first hack at the proposed budget Wednesday night, most of the Peachtree City Council admitted to having little stomach for making any further cuts that would affect city services.

Councilman Eric Imker is the only one of five council members who indicated a desire for service cuts. He wants to adopt furlough days, across the board pay cuts and other initiatives, and he is also proposing to eliminate the city's 401(k) retirement program which would leave employees with just one retirement option: a defined benefits pension plan.

The budget proposed by City Manager Bernie McMullen includes a minimum .25 mill increase in the city’s property tax rate to make up for the loss in property tax revenues from the reduced property values in this year’s tax digest.

Imker was able to convince his fellow councilman that they needed to take action to correct a projected $18 million shortfall over the next five years. Imker said a large chunk of that could be alleviated by adopting a 1 mill property tax increase this year, and he felt it would be justified; ultimately however that’s a suggestion he is adamantly opposed to.

Finance Director Paul Salvatore noted that much of the city’s projected shortfall is due to previous councils who would hire staffers and approve capital expenditures without increasing revenues commensurately. Imker concurred.

Salvatore noted that in the budget projection for 2013 city staff has projected the possibility of losing as much as $1 million a year in local sales tax revenues when the Census figures come in, as the city’s cut could be reduced in favor of communities that are gaining in population.

Councilman Doug Sturbaum suggested the city remove the purchase of eight police vehicles and a new fire engine from the budget, which would be purchased with the city’s ample stash of cash reserves. But staff noted that would merely be pushing those needs off on next year’s budget.

The new fire engine is needed to push one of the older engines back to a reserve status, explained Assistant Fire Chief Joe O’Conor. Without a reserve engine, when one of them is in the shop for repairs, that particular fire station goes without a fire engine and the area is covered by the two closest fire stations, O’Conor said.

Mayor Don Haddix said he was unwilling to cut the new fire engine. Imker said he appreciated the value of the fire engine especially since many city property owners saw a reduction in their home insurance rates as the city achieved a lower rating due to improvements in the fire department.

“That value, versus the cost of a new engine, greatly exceed the cost of the new engine,” Imker said.

Sturbaum said he would also like to see numbers and service level estimates for five percent budget cuts on every department. He also said he wanted to see figures detailing the impacts of millage rate increases of .25, .5, .75 and 1 full mill on the property tax rate.

McMullen said he might recommend a further hiring freeze, but noted that it would affect all departments including police and fire operations. Part-time salaries might also be cut including those of firefighters who are used to cover for full-timers who are on vacation or sick leave.

Councilmembers Kim Learnard, Vanessa Fleisch and Mayor Don Haddix each remarked they felt city staff has already been cut as deep as possible. This year’s budget includes six full-time and four part-time positions that will be unfunded and “frozen.”

The budget also does not include any pay raises for city employees, who took an effective pay cut last year as the city increased employee contributions to its medical insurance plan to the tune of $600 per employee.

City employees are also working harder due to hiring freezes and other staff reductions, as the city in the past two years has gone from staffing of 259 full-time positions to 231 employees now.

The city has also adopted policies to charge employees for the privilege of using a take-home vehicle, and the previous benefits afforded to part-time employees have been axed, all in an effort to keep the budget under control.

Among the 38 eliminated positions were the assistant city manager, 23 people in public works maintenance, six in recreation maintenance, four in the building department, and one each from code enforcement, engineering, planning and the Kedron Fieldhouse and Aquatic Center.

Last year the city added six firefighters via a federal grant, a police patrolman and a detective along with a customer service representative and a contract manager for public works to handle the city’s outsourcing of grass mowing and landscaping services that was required with the public works and recreation layoffs.

The budget recommended by McMullen includes a reduction in $49,000 for the city’s July 4 events, as the costs are being shifted to the city’s Tourism Association, which is funded by revenue from the city’s hotel-motel tax.

As for other cuts advocated by Imker, a furlough day would save the city $46,000 and eliminating the city’s 401(k) retirement program would save $170,000.

A one percent across the board salary reduction for all staff would save about $133,000.

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