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August 14, 2008 Issue

Food pantry shelves nearly bare
State budget cuts could cost counties hundreds of thousands
First Day Tears

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Food pantry shelves nearly bare

By Parish L. Howard
Editor/Publisher

Tuesday morning, Victor Vargas cleaned off several of the shelves in the Jefferson County Food Pantry’s storage room, helping to fill the bags of the area’s neediest.

The problem, Vargas and other volunteers said, is that the pantry does not have anything to restock the shelves.

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“Look, this is where we keep our supplies,” volunteer Sandra Clarke said, opening a walk-in closet to reveal an old wooden pallet, but no so much as a dry bean. “We just don’t have anything left.”

Lettie Cofer Mohammad, the pantry’s director, said that while they try never to send their clients away empty handed, they are certainly sending them away with less.

“We see a lot of families with small children and elderly people who just don’t have the means,” Mohammad said. “This year we’ve had more emergency food requests. There are a lot of people who have lost their jobs, or who have been living on unemployment and now that’s running out. We’ve had some who have transferred in, who have moved home to try to get by but then find that things are not any better here. There just aren’t any jobs out there for most of our clients.”

In July, the Louisville Food Pantry provided 5,140 pounds of food for 219 households and 469 people.

But, with its supplies low, it is having to give families less and less.

“We don’t have any fresh meat to speak of,” Mohammad said. “Anyone that has any venison or other meats in their freezer who needs to make room for the coming season, please think of us. We can use what you would throw away.”

The pantry gets most of its food from Golden Harvest Food Bank. The donations they get from churches, civic organization and individuals go much further with Golden Harvest, as prices there are much lower than grocery store sale items.

“But there are a lot of people who rely on Golden Harvest and this year, with all the floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters there have been a lot of people needing that food,” Clarke said. “They just don’t have as much for us.”

With Golden Harvest’s supplies low, the pantry is having to spend what cash donations they get in area grocery stores.

One volunteer said the pantry has not received the produce this year from area farmers and gardeners that they have received in the past.

“We need volunteers, too,” Mohammad said. “None of us around here are spring chickens. We need people to come in and learn the ropes so that we will have back up when people get sick. And we need shoppers who know how to recognize bargains.”

Anyone interested in making a donation to the pantry or interested in volunteering, should contact Mohammad at the pantry on Tuesdays and Thursdays before 11 a.m. at (478) 625-0890.

“We try to make sure that no one leaves empty handed, but sometimes it may not be much,” Mohammad said. Tuesday, there was a box top with a double handful of fresh tomatoes, smaller than baseballs. Each client got no more than one.

According to another volunteer, last week some people who did not qualify for children-based governmental programs were turned away before the pantry received a donation from a local woman.

Earlier this week a Vidette resident overheard a pantry volunteer discussing the situation and donated an entire freezer full of food, what turned out to be 108 pounds of frozen meat and vegetables.

The pantry went through almost all of that food Tuesday.



State budget cuts could cost counties hundreds of thousands

By Carol McLeod and Faye Ellison
Staff Writers

In a move that has caught communities across the state by surprise, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced Aug. 1 his decision to withhold $428 million in state grants. These funds, called Homestead Tax Relief Grants or HTRG, compensate counties, cities and school board systems for homestead exemptions granted to property owners.

“There are two cuts,” said Carl Bethune, Jefferson County School Board Superintendent.

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“The first cut is the state cuts on property relief, tax relief. That amount, from what (Jefferson County Administrator) Paul Bryan told me, effects the county government and the school board. Our portion, the school board portion, will be close to $350,000 to $400,000. That’s the property relief portion of the cut.”

Bethune said the second cut is an additional austerity cut, which has been given to the school systems for at least the last five years.

“We started this year with $180,000 reduction in our state earnings. We’ve had an increase reduction of close to $400,000. The total hit that the school board took is going to be close to $800,000, which was totally unexpected. We’ve not received anything from the governor’s office nor the department of education on how to handle the cuts,” he said.

“The way we termed it is a withholding,” said Bert Brantley, the governor’s press secretary. “It’s a withholding for now and when the final amended budget for ’09 is passed, that will have the spending reductions that the state needs.”

Brantley said the governor cannot change the budget and it will be up to the Georgia General Assembly to decide how to resolve the expected $1.6 billion shortfall, which precipitated the governor’s decision.

However, the General Assembly does not return to session until January.

That is a long time to wait, considering most counties and school boards have already set their millage rates. Tuesday, amid discussion of these cuts, Jefferson County BOE set theirs at 14 mills.

Glascock County Superintendent Jim Holton said that the Board of Education did not increase its millage rate this year, while the state, who sent out allotments in May, has rescinded saying it will cut state funds by 2 percent this year and 3 percent in the 2009-2010 school year.

“New state funding cuts could run well over $125,000 for the Glascock County School System,” Holton said.

Sen. JB Powell (D-23) said there has been talk about bringing the senate back into special session.

“It’s probably going to be next week before we know anything,” Powell said.

“Education is suffering pretty bad. I think we need to look at some other avenues first. I think we need to look at all other avenues before we approach another cut in education,” he said.

The senator said some cuts were made in the budget last year in the hopes that the economy would pick up.

“But the economy has not picked up,” he said.

“We cut over $90 million out of the budget and next year it’s projected that over $300 million will need to come out,” he said.

Powell said what will affect the state next year are the cuts already made, the $300 million in future cuts, balancing the budget and operating the government.

As communities and school boards around the state scramble for answers, none seem forthcoming.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia has advised counties to include the homeowner tax credit on tax bills. The ACCG said they have been told by staff from the senate and house that the legislature does not intend to reduce or eliminate these funds. The organization additionally stated these funds may not be released to local governments until as late as March, if they are released.

Stapleton City Council, during its regular meeting Monday, increased the city’s millage rate by one mill, which Mayor Harold Smith says should generate about $5,500, the amount that was expected by the state.

“That way, if they don’t fund it, we’ll have enough,” Smith said.

Jefferson County has already set its millage rate and held the required public hearings. In its regular monthly meeting held Tuesday, the commission set the millage rate at 13 mills, which includes a .75 mill for economic development. The gross millage rate will be 27.25 mills.

In Wadley, Mayor Pro Tem Edie Pundt heads the city’s finance committee. According to her, the HTRG account for a substantial amount.

“I think it would be around $20,000 to $22,000,” she said.

Pundt said she thinks the tax bills should be sent to residents with the exemptions on the bill.

Since Wadley has not yet set its millage rate, Pundt said the issue would be discussed in a work session.

“Oh, absolutely and pretty soon,” she said.

She said she wanted to talk with Powell and another person whom she would not name in order to get a clear understanding.

“I think it would be a significant cut for anybody because it’s based on your size and your income. $20,000 does not sound like much but we’re a small city. It’s all relative to your income,” Pundt said.

“It would not be easy,” she said. “And right off the top of my head I don’t know what we’d have to cut.”

Wrens City Administrator Artie Thrift said he and the mayor have discussed the issue.

“We are trying to find out some more information before we comment on that,” he said.

Representatives from other cities in the county were not reached before press time Tuesday.

George Rachels, the chief tax assessor for Jefferson County, would not comment on the matter.

“As we’ve sat here over the years and watched things happen, I’ve watched America go from the land of production to the land of consumption,” Powell said, adding a major issue for the state is unemployment.

“Our mining is in trouble, our manufacturing is in trouble and our agriculture is in trouble,” he said. “Any time you have those components taken out or not working, you’re in trouble. We have all these war costs. It’s costing us a tremendous amount of money that was unforeseen eight years ago. Gas, those components there, and then you’ve got a stagnant economy as far as production so that money is not being put back in the economy. War costs and fuel costs, that’s just breaking us down.”

A major issue for most communities has been the lack of warning this change was being considered.

“We had no knowledge of it,” Bethune said. “The only information we’ve received so far has been from the media. I’ve called the department of education to try to get some direction and they’re scrambling to determine what to do.

Bethune said if they had known a month ago, they could have adjusted.

“We’ve already hired teachers,” he said, adding they are working on options.

“We have a reserve, but we are going to have to make cuts, we can’t go into the reserve for a million (dollars),” Bethune added Tuesday.

“They should have been notified of a potential of budgetary changes that would affect them. I think that was a courtesy that should have been done,” Powell said.

Holton said he was informed of the proposal only 10 days ago, but the Board of Education has yet to have a meeting to discuss possible courses of action.

“We are very concerned about this news,” Holton said Tuesday, “but we don’t want to overreact. I have talked to some board members, but we haven’t been able to discuss anything as a group.”

Monday, superintendents statewide received notification in a letter from the Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Business Operations for the Georgia Department of Education Scott D. Austensen.

“Due to severe reductions in state revenue, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget has informed us that K through 12 education grants will be reduced by 2 percent in FY 2009, the 2008/2009 school year,” Austensen said. “The programs that are to be reduced include equalization, preschool handicapped, pupil transportation, QBE, school nurses and tuition for the multi-handicapped. We have also been informed that these same programs will be reduced by 3 percent in FY 2010.”

Austensen said that the state Department of Education is still developing an allotment sheet that will be provided as soon as possible.

“The governor’s looked at a range of options,” Press Secretary Brantley said. “We did only cut education 2 percent. We didn’t feel they could take a higher cut than that. Each agency is going to have to decide where to cut. Families across the state are going through this same exercise.”



First Day Tears

Growing up is hard to do. Christian Prickett (left) covers his eyes and wipes away tears on his first day of Pre-K at Wrens Elementary Monday morning. Kaitlyn Davis (below left) gives her mother one last hug before beginning her first day at Carver Elementary. Charles Prather clutches his mama's leg with one arm while his father gives some words of encouragement and advice via cell phone Monday morning. For more first day pictures, see page 9A.



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