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All state agencies must cut budgets
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Newton County's public safety, justice and health agencies could find themselves affected in a number of ways by the governor's call to cut state spending due to a looming budget deficit.

State agencies have until September to submit plans for cutting 6 percent of their fiscal year 2009 budgets in hopes of closing a projected $1.6 billion deficit. The state already had to dip into $600 million, or nearly half, of its reserve funds to close the FY 2008 budget gap because of lower-than-expected tax collection.

Revenues were reportedly down 7.3 percent in the last quarter of FY 2008. Despite the lagging economy, Georgia legislators passed a FY 2009 budget earlier this year based on a 3.9 percent estimate of growth in revenue and increased spending by about $900 million.

Agencies such as the Department of Human Resources  have furloughed employees for a day per month without pay. Some DHR employees are exempt from the furlough, including child welfare and adult protective services workers.

The state also cut Medicaid funding by 5 percent and local education by 2 percent.

Here's how the cuts affect Newton County.

Public Safety

Like most state agencies, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations is cutting back on purchasing vehicles, limiting travel, freezing hiring and cutting down on certain supplies to meet the 6 percent reduction for FY 2009, said GBI spokesperson Special Agent John Bankhead.

In addition, two medical examiners' positions in Moultrie and Summerville, which were already vacant, will be eliminated as will temporary staffing for entering criminal history into a database. A private security company that was contracted for GBI headquarters building security will be replaced by agents, said Bankhead.

"None of the cuts we've made will cut out services," Bankhead said. "There's a fall back on each of these cuts."

Local agencies might have to divert lab work and autopsies to other labs, he said, such as the metro-Atlanta lab, which Newton County uses.

If additional cuts of 6 percent are needed for FY 2010, the GBI might close two of its seven crime labs - Columbus and Moultrie - which have lighter workloads. The state drug task force, which provides undercover agents to smaller communities that do not have such resources, could also possibly be cut.

Georgia State Patrol is still trying to determine where to cut its budget, according to media spokesperson Senior Trooper Larry Schnall, but is similarly enacting a hiring freeze and restricting travel, equipment and vehicle purchases.

Though the local public safety agencies receive their funding from county and city coffers, Newton County law enforcement might feel the crunch indirectly, said Newton County Sheriff Joe Nichols.

For instance, less trooper presence means more deputies have to work serious accidents normally handled by troopers, which takes up time and takes deputies off the road, said Nichols. State cuts also mean less training is available in certain areas, such as instruction on the county's sexual offender registry.

Covington Fire Department Chief Don Floyd speculated the fire department may see some reduction in training available at the state fire academy.

Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton said officers would feel the effects through the agencies they work with, such as probation offices and the Department of Family and Children's Services.

"We could be affected by the cuts but not directly by the money that we operate on," he said.

Legal representation

The Alcovy Circuit Public Defender's Office receives about a third of its $1.5 million operating budget from the state, said Public Defender Anthony Carter, with the other two-thirds coming from Walton and Newton counties.

Carter said the PD office is trying to find ways to reduce the budget without going into staff salaries, by taking funds from conflict cases costs, expert and travel funds and money from the central office of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council.

"With the increase in caseloads we have seen over the past few years, the judicial system in Newton County has been stretched pretty thin anyway," said Carter, via e-mail. "It will be hard for the public defender, district attorney, judges and other state-funded agencies to find ways to make further cuts."

District Attorneys' offices receive about a third of their funds from state sources on average, said Alcovy Circuit DA Ken Wynne. Newton and Walton fund a large portion of the prosecution in their counties.

To meet the 6 percent reduction, Wynne's office has suspended pay and merit increases, restricted purchases of motor vehicles, cut printing and travel expenditures and delayed training for investigators and personnel until at least next spring, he said.

The office has not resorted to furloughs, although all options are still on the table, he said. With the enormous case loads, forcing staff or attorneys to take time off would affect services considerably.

"If we are forced to furlough people, it's going to cripple our court system," Wynne said.

The Newton County DA's office has opened 2,520 cases so far this year and is on track to have 4,000 cases this year. The Newton County PD office has a yearly caseload of approximately 3,500.

Public Health

The East Metro Health District is not a state agency but does receive about 9 percent of its operating budget from state contracts, said spokesperson Vernon Goins.

"I don't anticipate any cutback in services at this point, even if it goes to 10 percent," he said, adding the agency wasn't yet sure about the amount of reduction from the state.

The district used to be entirely state funded, but about five years ago, because of gradual cuts in state funding, it shifted to more of a business model, said Goins. Now it collects revenue from services such as health inspections, selling flu shots and other contracted services.

About 10 of the board's 340 employees are state employees and subject to furloughs of one day a month starting in September. The agency will also place a freeze on hiring and raises, in alignment with the state, said Goins.

The Gwinnett-Rockdale-Newton Community Services Board, which provides mental health and addiction treatment services, receives about half of its $30 million operating budget from contracts with the state Department of Human Resources, said David Crews, deputy director for administrative operations. Another 20 to 25 percent comes from Medicaid billing.

"We're expecting that we will lose some funding," Crews said. "It's difficult to say how much."

The DHR board is supposed to meet today. A hopeful sign came from the governor's office indication that it would try to shield mental health services from the effects of cuts, said Crews.

The board serves about 2,300 consumers a year from its Newton mental health center and almost 200 more people daily in the day centers located on Kirkland Road.

Newton Medical Center is also estimating an impact of $500,000 from Medicaid cuts, according to Chief Financial Officer Troy Brooks.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.