Relief from unfunded state mandates, permits for concealed weapons and road projects were among the topics discussed at meetings between local and state officials at the Justice Center on Wednesday.
One shared concern was the status of the state's homestead tax-relief grants, which are provided to local governments and passed along to homeowners as a tax credit. Gov. Sonny Perdue froze the $428 million in grants in an effort to make up a $1.6 billion shortfall in the state budget.
The school system could lose $2.8 million if these funds remain frozen, and Superintendent Charles Nagle told members of the county's legislative delegation that the school system would have a cash-flow problem if those funds are not released.
The governor also has proposed withholding 2 percent in funding from the state's K-12 public schools next year and another 3 percent the year after. All state agencies have been asked to identify cuts of 6 percent, 8 percent or 10 percent in their budgets.
"I don't think anything is completely off the table. Negotiations are still going on," said Pat Wilson, the state government affairs director. "We've got to make some decisions in the next couple of weeks."
Wilson was one of five state officials who held separate meetings with school board officials, county commissioners and other county officials. The other state officials were state Rep. Ben Harbin; state Sen. Bill Jackson; Lee Anderson, who won the July primary to run for the state House 117th District seat being vacated by Barry Fleming; and Russell Britt, the state local government relations liaison.
"There's a trickle-down effect. Every decision that you make, we have to adapt," said school board member Mike Sleeper.
Tax Commissioner Kay Allen said she has gotten calls from county residents in every socioeconomic bracket about the homestead tax grants, and commission Chairman Ron Cross said the board would wait and see what happens with the grants.
"I don't know that we'll have to do anything if we don't get it back. But eventually we will," he said.
Probate Judge Pat Hardaway raised a concern about the requirements and deadlines that are placed on probate judges to issue permits to carry concealed weapons.
"They're putting restrictions on us that we have no control over," she said after the meeting, such as the length of time needed to conduct fingerprint and background checks.
Commissioner Tommy Mercer said budget cuts would force the county Board of Health to eliminate preventive programs.
Nagle raised the possibility of receiving a waiver from state-mandated class-size requirements. He also asked about two of Gov. Perdue's education initiatives -- the $100 gift cards that are issued to middle and high school graduation coaches and teachers to buy school supplies.
He said the gift cards total more than $100,000 in Columbia County.
"That $100 has been definitely appreciated," Nagle said. "But during these times, those are dollars that could go toward fuel."
He also said the graduation coaches, particularly those who were hired at the high schools two years ago to keep at-risk students on track for graduation, have become entrenched in the school system.
Harbin said the meetings were designed to strengthen communications between local and state officials and to help officials make contingency plans to offset potential funding cuts. He said the state got caught flat-footed this year by faulty economic predictions.
"Economic forecasts were still calling for Georgia to grow," Harbin said.
"Revenue was trending down, but we didn't realize how severely."
During the first month of this fiscal year, said Wilson, revenues were down by about $87 million.
Nagle said after the meeting that he felt like the session with the local legislative delegation had been productive.
"They've got a lot of cuts to make, and they're asking us to make some sacrifices at the school level," he said.
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