Albany County officials anticipate a tight budget crunch in the months to come, with hiring freezes and layoffs both possibilities for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
During a Tuesday afternoon work session, Albany County Commissioner Heber Richardson said he expected to reduce the county’s workforce through attrition, or declining to hire replacements when a person leaves an existing position.
Other potential measures the county will consider are retirement incentives, reduced workweeks, salary reductions for department heads and county elected officials and hiring freezes, though law enforcement would be exempt from the last measure, Richardson said.
“Almost $14 million (in discretionary funds) is something that we can play around with, and we have to do our statutory duties first — we can’t tell the state we can’t do them,” Richardson said. “And because 85 percent of our expenses inside that almost $14 million is personnel and the associated vacation, benefits, retirement, all of that kind of stuff, that’s almost the only place where we can make cuts.”
He stressed handing out pink slips was “the last thing” he wanted to do, but that option was also on the table.
“I do want you all to know that I understand exactly what you do,” he told the assembled county employees and department heads. “I respect you, appreciate you and love you for it. But we have to balance the budget, and we’re gonna.”
Richardson said he wanted to focus on “zero-based budgeting,” meaning starting the budgeting process from the ground up to determine what the county needs, rather than looking at what it has spent historically.
“Everybody has to dig deep, and we still might not get there,” he said.
Albany County Commission Chairman Tim Chesnut directed Albany County Clerk Jackie Gonzales to find out if the county could statutorily reduce the salaries of elected officials and indicated he wanted to avoid layoffs if possible.
“It’s going to be a tough job, but we’re going to do everything we can not to go there,” he said.
Gonzales introduced a budget calendar that includes two weeks of budget discussion meetings between the commissioners and county department heads in April.
The budget would be finalized in June and formally adopted July 5.
“As you’re aware, last year, for the very first time ever, we adopted the budget prior to the commencement of the new fiscal year,” Gonzales said. “We are going to basically use that same format, although we would present to the board of county commissioners a request to basically allow for the public hearing the morning of your regular meeting on July 5 ... this then, allows us to actually expend funds that have been appropriated within the fiscal year.”
She noted the county’s budget increased by about $5 million since 2006 and by about 27 employees during the same time period, stressing the upcoming budget-making process would require a “collaborative effort” among all of the elected officials and department heads.
“Those hard decisions have to be made — we can’t just live from year to year and hope that something will be done by the Legislature,” Gonzales said. “We’ve been able to do it in the past, and I believe we’ll be able to do it now and for the future.”
Albany County Treasurer Linda Simpson said there were a lot of unknowns in terms of how much funding the county could expect to receive.
“Looking into the next year, with the school funding being so short and legislation not having the funding, it’s very unlikely we’ll have the hardship and direct aid for a couple more years, at least until energy starts doing something where things are boosted up,” she said.