Tax increase, layoffs on the table in Fulton

Any employee who survives the layoffs, which will be determined over the next 10 weeks, would be forced to take 10 furlough days under the option approved Thursday. Fulton would convert all of its holidays to unpaid time off.

Commissioners were quick to point out the series of votes Thursday approving that option doesn't set anything in stone. It merely sets direction for staff who must now recommend specific cuts.

Next month, commissioners would decide on those recommendations. A final budget adoption won't happen until late January.

"We are voting on a starting point for conversation," said Commissioner Bill Edwards.

And, they left open the possibility -- though it was not part of the budget direction approved by commissioners Thursday -- to increase property taxes in 2010.

The major proponent of a tax increase was not one of the five Democrats, but north Fulton Republican Tom Lowe, the dean of the commission with more than three decades of service. He suggested a 1 mill tax increase that would bring in an additional $35 million and prevent some of the cuts that would be part of what was adopted Thursday.

"I can go to the public with that," Lowe said. "They aren't going to condemn us."

County officials supported the idea by saying many taxpayers will be getting a break this year because property values have fallen.

In all, the $517.6 million budget proposal pares back spending by $148.2 million. The budget was released Monday. The reduction would come through $86 million in departmental cuts, refinancing bonds and other measures.

An alternative proposal that would have meant cutting most departments' budgets by 25 percent did not move forward Thursday. It had been opposed Wednesday by court officials who said they would have to lay off 1,000 employees to meet their targets.

Still, the option commissioners moved ahead Thursday won't be any picnic.  The court system's cuts could be about $25 million. At that number, even with $70,000 in salary and benefits for the average court employee, court officers would still need to cut about 300 employees.

Zachary Williams, county manager, said the final budget will mean entire programs will definitely be eliminated along with employees.

Commissioners also cautioned Thursday for staff to be careful in how any cuts are made. Commissioner Nancy Boxill warned against managers firing just their low-ranking, least-paid employees.

"I want us to be mindful of what work needs to get done and who can do it," Boxill said. "It's been my experience that cutting from the bottom doesn't get things done."

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