The Douglas County Board of Commissioners will hold their first hearing on a proposed $98.2 million budget for 2021 next Tuesday at 10 a.m. The budget is set to be adopted Dec. 15.
The budget will include 8.25% across-the-board cuts to county departments, according to District 1 Commissioner Henry Mitchell. Mitchell added that furlough days and pay cuts for county employees in 2021 are off the table for now. Most county employees were required to take five furlough days this year as a result of shortfalls the BOC attributed to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mitchell said the outlook for 2021 is “just as bad” as 2020, with mass vaccinations and a return to normal not likely until late next year or possibly into 2022. He said commissioners will look at where things are financially for the county next spring and make adjustments to the 2021 budget then if needed. Mitchell said his position is that furloughs should be on the table if things are worse than expected when the BOC reviews its finances in the spring.
The county’s finances were the subject of a report on Fox 5 on Monday that centered around Tax Commissioner Greg Baker giving $28,500 worth of bonuses to nine employees in his office. The BOC raised the tax rate on county property owners 27.8% earlier this year due to this year’s budget shortfall.
One employee in the tax commissioner’s office, chief deputy Sharon Jackson, got a $7,000 bonus and eight others got bonuses between $1,000 and $4,000, according to the report from Fox 5.
Baker said some of his employees are working six and seven days a week and that those are the employees he rewarded.
“I’m going to take care of my own people,” Baker told the Sentinel. “At the end of the year, I’ll see what I have left in my budget that I give people. That’s what I do. And that’s what they should have asked every department to do as far as I’m concerned.”
Baker personally gets a fee for each tax bill the county sends out to collect taxes for the cities of Douglasville and Villa Rica. State law allows tax commissioners to personally receive the fee for collecting money on behalf of municipalities. Mitchell said it is funds from those fees that Baker is using to pay bonuses to his employees, noting that if Baker wanted to he could just “pocket” the money used for the bonuses.
“He’s done nothing illegal, he’s done nothing wrong,” Mitchell said of Baker. “But the perception of it is not good.”
The Fox 5 report also noted that several employees in Baker’s office haven’t taken the five furlough days required of most county employees this year.
Baker told the Sentinel on Monday that his employees will take furlough days, but that it’s “just a matter of when” because his office is now processing property tax payments that were due on Nov. 15.
Baker acknowledged in the TV report that his employees will not likely be able to take all five furlough days that other county employees were forced to take by the end of year.
Baker in the Monday interview with the Sentinel chided commissioners for spending nearly $1 million shortly after the COVID-19 crisis hit in the spring to give hazard pay to more than 500 county employees and to provide other community aid.
“I wouldn’t have furloughed no firefighters and no sheriff,” Baker said. “Why don’t you write that. I wouldn’t have furloughed anybody in the county. You gave a million dollars away in hazardous pay and then you turn around and furlough people. Does that make sense to you?”
The TV report also revealed that County Administrator Mark Teal emailed Commission Chairman Romona Jackson Jones, asking, “Do you want us to approve these bonuses when all other employees had to take furloughs?”
Teal later emailed the county human resources department, writing “per direction from Madam Chair a few minutes ago via phone conversation, the Tax Commissioner is a Constitutional Officer and can provide bonuses for his employees if he has funds available within his budget.”
Jones did not respond to a message seeking comment for this story.
The TV report also showed an email County Finance Director Jennifer Hallman sent to Teal earlier this month letting him know that the tax commissioner’s office had just made the finance department aware of a $1.2 million shortage that was only recently discovered due to “system errors.”
Hallman in the email to Teal said 8.25% across-the-board cuts were needed to balance the 2021 budget and to keep the county at its 10% reserve fund balance level.
Mitchell said the 8.25% cuts Hallman referenced are included in the $98.2 million budget that will be formally presented to taxpayers next week.
Mitchell said that while it was the tax commissioner’s office that discovered the error, it was the county Board of Assessors who didn’t provide Baker’s office the correct numbers.
“It’s just a human error,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said some of the allegations made about the county fire department in the TV report were incorrect.
He acknowledged that firefighters have been furloughed, but said “Not one fire station has ever closed down. Not one.”
“First of all, that is illegal,” he said. “I don’t care how bad it gets, the fire department and the sheriff’s department will never close. You can’t do that. And especially if somebody gets hurt, you’re really going to get sued. That’s totally incorrect.”
He said one fire station had a truck that was down which could have slowed service in that area.
Mitchell said that some fire stations may be understaffed due to turnover in the fire department. But he said the county is hiring and that stations are not being shut down during furloughs in the fire department.
The first hearing on the 2021 county budget will be held at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 1 via Microsoft TEAMS. The live hearing will be broadcasted at https://Douglascounty.viebit.com. Citizens may register to speak at the public hearing via Microsoft Teams with County Clerk Lisa Watson at email@example.com or by voicemail at 770-920-7416 or citizens may call in at 229-302-4628, Conference ID 764379277#. The 2021 budget is scheduled to be adopted Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. via Microsoft TEAMS.