AUGUSTA — The Augusta City Council talked Thursday night of removing at least some of the eight furlough days that have been recommended for employees as officials look to trim next year’s proposed $67.5 million city and school budget.

At a public hearing, City Manager William Bridgeo included eight furlough days, on which most city operations will be closed, and all city staff members — other than uniformed public safety workers — will not work or be paid, saving the city about $214,000 over the coming year.

Councilors expressed concern about the impact of the furlough days on employees, especially since the city has a smaller staff following the recent layoffs of  some 32 workers, primarily from city operations temporarily shut down due to coronavirus-related restrictions, such as the Augusta Civic Center and Lithgow Public Library.

Some expressed interest in eliminating at least some of the furlough days from the budget. To remove some of the furlough days without a tax increase would require finding about $27,000, the estimated savings from each day, in new revenues or budget cuts.

“We’ve got a smaller staff because we terminated the livelihoods of 32 people,” Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind said. “At around $27,000 a furlough day, I think we can find (funding to get rid of some of the furlough days). I want the city to be an employer of choice.”

Bridgeo said he agrees furlough days are painful. He said he would be agreeable to using money from new revenues or savings to eliminate some of them, if that is what a majority of councilors seek. He said if unexpected revenues come in, such as in federal or state funding, the city could consider using those funds to reduce or even eliminate the planned furlough days.

Property taxes would increase slightly, 1.43%, as proposed in the initial $67.5 million city and school budget for next year.

City officials, however, are hopeful spending in the school budget can be cut enough to reduce the combined city and school spending plan to avoid a tax increase and keep the property tax rate where it is, at $20.97 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Bridgeo said councilors had made it clear to him the budget should not increase property taxes at a time when many residents and businesses are struggling due to the impact of the coronavirus.

Earlier this month, city councilors asked school officials to cut about $465,000 in school funding, which would eliminate the need for a  tax hike.

School Board Chairman Ed Hastings and Superintendent James Anastasio said then they understood the situation and they would look to make cuts to the school budget, which was drafted before the coronavirus became a global pandemic. The cuts, school officials said, would not have a major impact on services to students but would have to be approved by the school board.

City officials said the city’s share of the proposed $67.5 million budget for next year already includes extensive cuts to try to avoid the need for a property tax increase.

As proposed currently, the city’s share of the budget would require $198,000 less from taxpayers, but the school side would require $465,000 more.

Bridgeo, Mayor David Rollins and city councilors noted the city has already done its part to cut expenses, including the proposed furlough days, layoffs and other cuts.

Staff cuts in the budget include Lithgow Public Library’s assistant director, who also is the adult services librarian; the least senior of the city’s three code enforcement officers; and plans to leave vacant positions, including a police officer’s position and an office worker  in the city clerk’s office, and several part-time positions, unfilled. Those cuts are expected to save about $352,000.

The public hearing on the budget was held Thursday via Zoom video conferencing. While there was an email account setup to take public comment during the meeting, no members of the public commented. However, officials said those wishing to comment on the budget in person, not virtually, will be able to do so next Thursday, when city councilors are scheduled to hold an in-person meeting together at the Augusta Civic Center.

Bridgeo said the Fort Western Room of the city-owned Civic Center, chosen because it is big enough to allow a meeting to take place while participants still maintain at least 6 feet between themselves, has been setup to allow for in-person public meetings, which will resume next week.

Councilors hope to finalize the budget for a vote in mid-June.

The city would tap into some of its reserve funds to help balance the budget, taking $1.7 million from a reserve account of about $7.2 million, which Bridgeo said would leave enough in the account to comply with the city charter’s provisions that recommend the city keep an amount of at least 8.3% of the current budget in reserve for use in case of emergencies and other unplanned expenditures. The fund is currently about 11% of the city budget.

The tax bill for the owner of the average home, assessed at $127,400 in Augusta, would be $2,231 with the budget as currently proposed, or $2,200, the same as this year, if the budget were cut by the proposed $465,000.

Expenses in the budget are $2.3 million, or 3.5%, more than current spending.

Total revenues are projected to increase by about $1.8 million, but Bridgeo noted it is difficult to estimate the state aid the city will receive because the state is also facing a budget crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. He and others have expressed concern state officials may cut funding shared with municipalities and schools in response to state revenue shortfalls.

In past years, the city has been able to generate as much as $880,000 in interest income on invested funds but, with the huge drop in interest rates and reduction of the city’s reserve funds, officials project the city will earn only $209,000 in the coming year, a $420,000, or 67%, drop from this year.

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