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Whitfield, Dalton take different approaches to finance, budget – The Daily Citizen

Posted: Sunday, September 20, 2015 12:09 am

Whitfield, Dalton take different approaches to finance, budget

By Charles Oliver
[email protected]

daltondailycitizen.com

Between them, the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners and the Dalton City Council will likely spend more than $70 million this year.

The council members and the commissioners are currently putting together their 2016 budgets. Both are required to hold public hearings before adopting a budget. But they have a different approach to public involvement before those hearings.

The city is providing more opportunity for public input, but so far, members of the public haven’t taken advantage of those opportunities.

For instance, the City Council met on Sept. 10 with department heads and other city employees at Dalton State College’s James Brown Center to go over their budget requests.

A 2016 budget proposal, based on those requests, contained some $32.105 million in spending, down 0.1 percent from the 2015 budget. But it also projected $31.5 million in revenue, leaving it with a budget deficit of just over $600,000. Council members said they want to trim that red ink before they have to finalize the budget in December, and they discussed ways to reduce that red ink.

But a single member of the media and Tyree Goodlett, who is running for the City Council in the November election, were the only people other than council members and city employees to sit in on that discussion even though the meeting was open to the public and had been previewed in The Daily Citizen.

And on Wednesday of last week, during a meeting of the city finance committee, council members focused on a handful of departments, including information technology and the Dalton Municipal Airport, discussing 2016 budget proposals with department heads and once more focusing on ways to reduce their budget requests.

Again, even though the meeting was open to the public and had been posted on the city website, no members of the public showed up.

Mayor Dennis Mock, a member of the finance committee, said that is typical for the finance committee’s monthly meetings, where when the committee isn’t putting together the next year’s budget it’s keeping an eye on current spending and revenue.

“That’s sad,” he said. “We’d really like people to know where their money is going.”

The finance committee is made up of Mock, council members Gary Crews and Denise Wood, City Administrator Ty Ross and Chief Financial Officer Cindy Jackson.

The Board of Commissioners is also currently putting together its 2016 budget, but commissioners are following a different process. Board Chairman Mike Babb has asked commissioners Barry Robbins and Lynn Laughter, who have financial backgrounds, to work with department heads and constitutional officers such as the sheriff, the tax commissioner and the district attorney to put together the county’s budget.

“We are meeting with our finance director and department heads when they present their budget requests,” said Robbins. “Those meetings are taking place during the day, and we aren’t always able to attend, but we are getting information from the department heads and exchanging emails with them and with the finance director, so that we can ask questions, looking for ways to reduce spending. That’s our primary focus.”

Laughter says she has sat in on several of the meetings and will be sitting in on more this week.

“They have been very helpful,” she said. “We got to hear from the department heads directly what their needs are. I was able to ask a lot of questions, and I learned a lot. There are, I think, 14 of them (this week), and I’m going to try to make as many as I can.”

Those meetings are not required to be open to the public under state law but county officials have invited the media to them.

Whitfield County resident Mary Thelma Norris recently emailed Babb asking the county to create a finance committee and pointing out that other jurisdictions have such committees.

“I don’t think they are doing anything wrong, but I do think it would create more transparency,” she said. “There are people who would like to have an opportunity for input. I think that was obvious from the meetings (earlier this year) when they were discussing the (property) tax increase.”

But Babb says the county already has a finance committee, called the Board of Commissioners.

“That’s our main job. That’s why we are elected,” he said. “We go over our monthly financials at all of our regular meetings, so if people want to hear them they don’t have to attend a special meeting. We always have a time for public comment during our meetings, so if people want to ask a question, they have that opportunity, too.”

Babb says that while Robbins and Laughter will be sitting in with the finance director and department heads during their meetings as their schedule permits they are not a formal committee.

“They aren’t required to attend any of these meetings, and they won’t make any formal recommendations to the board about the budget,” he said. “The finance director will put the numbers together and we will review them. And we’ll have hearings, which will be announced and open to the public, before we vote on a budget. All of that information will be placed on our website before the hearings.”


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