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County faces tough decisions on spending
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Forsyth County News
In this space we have — on many occasions over the years — taken members of the Forsyth County Commission to task for various and sundry perceived shortcomings.

But honesty demands the admission that theirs is a difficult job, and never more so than during the annual struggle to match anticipated revenues against projected expenses.

That difficult dance has again gained the spotlight, with last week’s revelation that the county anticipates a $13 million shortfall in the budget for the coming year.

Having fought against a harsh economic tide for the past three years, county officials find themselves in the same position as many small business owners — they’ve cut expenses time and again, and still don’t anticipate enough revenue to finance ongoing operations.

It’s cliché to point out that there are truly only two approaches to bringing the county budget into balance — reduce spending even more, or increase revenue.

And the only way to increase revenue, at least by any significant amount, is to raise taxes.

Nobody ever wants to pay more in taxes than is absolutely necessary to fund governmental services. The trick is finding what level of services the taxpaying public considers to be absolutely necessary.

The taxpaying public comprises a diverse and varied constituency that seldom is in total agreement as to what constitutes essential government service. For some, public safety is the overall top priority. For others it is transportation. Some taxpayers think public funding of parks and libraries is essential; others see those items as luxuries. Social services are top priorities for some of those called upon to share the tax revenue burden; others would prefer their money used elsewhere.

It is up to the county commission to determine where spending can be cut, and where it should be increased. That is no easy task.

Already Sheriff Ted Paxton has stepped forward to say his department is out of money this year and will have to eliminate some 30 percent of deputy positions if additional funds aren’t forthcoming. That’s just one department trying to deal with the funding cuts in this year’s budget. Paxton says the department needs an 18 percent increase in funding for next year.

For years the county was able to ride the economic success engine. Tax revenues were strong, and government grew as a result. In recent years, the opposite has been true. Tax revenues are down, and government has been shrinking.

Much of the effort to balance the county budget has been done by taking steps that have dramatic financial impact on rank and file public employees — furloughs that are in effect pay cuts, reductions in 401k contributions, elimination of holiday pay. Many of those bearing the brunt of such cuts face personal financial challenges of their own and can ill afford more reductions.

In the weeks to come, commissioners have to decide if local government can operate even more efficiently, or if further reductions will so severely cripple vital programs as to fail to meet the mandate for public service.

Those aren’t easy questions to answer.