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Barrow to hold first public hearing on 2011 budget

WINDER -- Push is expected to meet shove Tuesday, when financially beleaguered Barrow County is scheduled to hold the first of three required public hearings on its fiscal 2011 budget, which begins Oct. 1.

As it attempts to balance its $31.5 million budget during difficult economic times of plummeting revenues, Barrow is walking a tight rope between cutting services and raising property taxes. As in Gwinnett and elsewhere, residents have resisted tax increases, while reluctant to accept reduction in sheriff services or closure of one of seven fire stations, as has been discussed in recent weeks.

After blunt discussions at SPLOST and specially called budget meetings, circumstances were made even more poignantly clear Tuesday night, when Barrow Chief Financial Officer Rose Kisaalita presented her latest set of slimmed and trimmed budget numbers to the County Commission.

"This is a very, very tight budget," she said. "I'd be surprised if we get through the year with no department having come back asking for more (money). We need to cut expenditures as much as we can, but we also need to raise more revenue."

But Commission Chairman Danny Yearwood pointed out that revenues have been hopelessly flat. Much as he wishes otherwise, he said a balanced budget boils down to some combination of cutting services or raising the millage rate.

"Nobody wants to raise taxes," he said, "but I'm going to say it again: You either cut services or raise taxes."

Though nothing is certain, the likely outcome is expected to be a combination of budget cuts and tax increases. Most departments are expected to see their budgets slimmed by about 5 percent, in addition to a millage increase of 1 percent, raising the tax on an average $150,000 home about $60 annually. The millage increase is expected to generate an additional $1.6 million, according to numbers Kisaalita presented Tuesday.

As was the case in Barrow's $33.6 million budget of 2010, the 2011 budget's largest components are expected to be that of the Sheriff's office ($6.2 million), detention ($5.6 million) and Fire and Emergency Services ($5.2 million). Kisaalita considered positive, however, this year's roughly $1.7 million year-to-date reduction in general fund expenditures compared to fiscal 2009, and the nearly $6.5 million reduction in expenditures compared to those budgeted.

The first public hearing is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the commission chambers, followed by two others at noon and 6 p.m. Sept. 7, before the commission votes on the budget at its semi-monthly meeting Sept. 14.

Kisaalita, who came to Barrow's CFO post just months ago from Clarke County, said she doesn't know what to expect at the public hearings.