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Barrow mulls budget options

WINDER - On a day Gwinnett county litigated millage rates with its cities in superior court, the Barrow County Commission spoke plainly to the public about its similarly cash-strapped circumstance at its meeting Tuesday night.

Like Gwinnett, which is cutting services because of residents' objection to a tax increase, Barrow already faces a $2.2 million budget shortfall as it approaches the October start of fiscal year 2010. Barrow Chairman Danny Yearwood led commissioners' appeal to the public for ongoing guidance on whether to increase taxes or cut services.

"We're trying to lay it out on the table," Yearwood said. "It's up to you as taxpayers to tell us what you want."

Commissioner Isaiah Berry echoed Yearwood's and Commissioner Ben Hendrix's sentiment that raising taxes, like borrowing money, are last resorts.

"At one point, I said I never would (raise taxes)," Berry said, "and I'm a man of my word."

Barrow already has made substantial cutbacks, including stripping county employees of holiday pay and in June reducing salaries and combining departments to save an estimated $600,000 to $717,000.

Like all municipalities suffering through declining tax revenues, Yearwood said Barrow faces "but three options: raise taxes, cut services or borrow money. We don't have any time to procrastinate."

Though no millage rate increase has been proposed formally, Barrow is contemplating a two-mill increase that Yearwood said would garner an estimated $3 million, half of which could be applied to the budget deficit.

In other business, the commission:

· Promoted Purchasing Director Bob Hohe to county operations manager, primarily to help Yearwood with duties commissioners had said publicly were limiting his effectiveness as chairman. Hohe, whose salary will be about $61,000, will have a second purchasing agent added beneath him at a salary of roughly half that.

Commissioners praised Hohe's tireless work ethic, joking that they've often tried chasing him from his office on Saturdays.

"I sleep in Oconee County, but I live in Barrow County," cracked Hohe.

· Approved county employees' change of health insurance and dental insurance from Blue Cross/Blue Shield to Athens Area Health Plan Select and Delta Dental, respectively. County Human Resources Manager Norma Jean Brown estimated the change will save the county roughly $736,000.

· Reaffirmed the estimated $33,000 it gets annually from a 5 percent surcharges on fines will be split among Peace Place, a domestic violence shelter and three other victim services groups.