Cutting to the bone 

County budget woes could hurt important programs

While anemic budgets are more normal than newsworthy these days, Chatham County’s may be the first locally to have not only struck bone but lopped a whole arm off.

Although the budget won’t be finalized until the end of the month, current solutions for a deficit of more than $2.5 million include significant decreases in funding to highly successful programs and public safety, along with layoffs of as many as 100 employees.

Among the programs on the chopping block are a $260,000 cut to the Counter–Narcotics Team (CNT), a one million dollar cut to indigent health care funding, and the shuttering of the Chatham Apprentice Program.

“The irony of a Friday the 13th Budget has not escaped me,” wrote County Manager Russ Abolt in a memo attached to a budget proposal released on Friday, May 13. “This is an ugly budget.”

At the time, one significant variable left in the equation was the total decrease in the county tax digest – more than 80 percent of the County’s revenue is derived from ad valorem taxes and particularly property taxes. The total loss in property value was about where it was expected to be.

The initial budget proposal was based on a projected four percent decrease in value. Last week, the County’s Interim Chief Appraiser reported that the actual decrease was 4.2 percent, meaning that significantly more cuts won’t be necessary, though revisions will be needed.

“We’re in the critical first steps here, but we haven’t gotten to the finished product yet,” says Patrick Farrell, the commissioner for the fourth district. “There’s dwindling income and expenses staying the same or going up, very few expenses have gone down that I’m aware of.”

Operating expenses are projected to increase by nearly $4.9 million, a majority of which stem from a multi–million dollar increase in health care costs for current employees and post–employment benefits for retirees.

Three years from now, when the new prison opens, the county’s expenses will increase more, having to absorb new levels of staffing in addition to higher costs of caring for more inmates.

Even if the County avoids a millage increase this year, that victory will be temporary and might require a larger increase in coming years if no solutions are found to issues like the structural imbalance of the unincorporated county’s Special Service District budget.

Of the programs facing cuts, several are preventative expenses where spending a smaller sum in the short term saves on greater long term expenses.

Seventy percent of the participants in the Chatham Apprentice Program, a job training program facilitated by Step Up Savannah, are ex–offenders looking for a new path in life.

“This is a real opportunity for people,” says Daniel Dodd, Step Up’s Executive Director. “This is really impacting the lives of hundreds of individuals and their families.”

The idea for the program, which was initially known as the Construction Apprentice Program, began with several County Commissioners in 2006 who were searching for an effective job training program. Over the last five years, the program has had 352 graduates. More than 60 percent of those graduates were placed in jobs and 15 percent went on to pursue additional education or technical certifications.

If the budget is approved as–is, the program will shut down in December. Despite being recognized nationally for its success, and receiving strong support of the Commission and the County Manager, Dodd wasn’t surprised that it could be cut from the budget.

“When local government talks about essential services, this is not considered an essential service,” says Dodd. “Generally, programs like these are the first to go.”

Without the program, however, the cost of recidivism will quickly outpace the short term savings. While it costs tens of thousands of dollars to house an inmate for a year, it costs less than $3,000 per year to put a person through the apprentice program.

“One of the participants came up to give testimony, he talked about how the program has influenced him in such a positive way,” says Dodd.

“He actually said to the commissioners, ‘Look, if it weren’t for this program, I would be out in the street. I could be robbing your houses right now.’”

The Chatham County Safety Net Planning Council (CCSNPC) helps facilitate a comprehensive health care program with a particular focus on the uninsured and underinsured.

“We’re really fortunate in Chatham County that the county gives any money toward indigent care,” says Dr. Paula Reynolds, CCSNPC’s Executive Director. “It is unusual throughout the state that this is done.”

The CCSNPC helps make indigent health care in the county more efficient and effective, coordinating services across a system of primary care providers like Curtis V. Cooper, St. Mary’s, and the J.C. Lewis Health Center.

By eliminating redundancies, streamlining services and distributing funding, the group has grown the system by more than 50 percent over the last five years and in 2009 (the most recent data available), they assisted more than 26,000 patients locally, 78 percent of whom were uninsured.

“A big cut to the overall budget would impact all of the agencies who receive a portion of the indigent care money,” says Reynolds, explaining that the potential million dollar cut would be spread across all the indigent care givers. “Impacting the whole system in this way means all the work we’ve done to increase and open doors for people, that will have to be pulled back.”

Though the Counter–Narcotics team budget was over $4.5 million this year, the potential loss of $260,000 wouldn’t go unnoticed. The agency, which is solely funded by the County, has been busier than usual in 2011.

During the first quarter, CNT initiated almost 297 investigations, an 8 percent increase over the same period the year prior, seizing more than $400,000 worth of drugs and making 98 arrests.

The agency is the second largest drug unit in the state, following Atlanta’s, and the only state certified agency to deal solely in narcotics.

Spokesperson Gene Harley, citing the ongoing process of the budget, would not comment on whether the cuts would affect personnel levels. 

Barring anything short of a total reversal on their promise not to raise the millage rate, the Commission will be left with the unenviable task of cutting from several agencies and programs before the start of the fiscal year July 1.

“This is an ongoing and fluid process,” says Farrell. “Until there’s a final budget adopted, there’s a lot of options out there.”


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Patrick Rodgers

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