By Shannon McCaffrey
Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA – Georgia transportation officials on Friday grappled with how to fill a $189 million budget shortfall that could endanger road projects and force employee furloughs and even layoffs.
“This is a crisis and we are trying to buy time until we can recover,” state transportation board member Emory McClinton said.
Transportation Commissioner Gena Evans laid out a list of recommended cuts ranging from a one-day-a-month unpaid furlough for all of the department’s 5,500 employees to slashing the money for highway landscaping contracts and eliminating pay raises.
One possible target – laying off 566 department employees – got a cool reception from some board members who said the current tough economy is not the time to be handing out pink slips.
Another option would slash $28 million in road money that local governments count on to repave and maintain roads. The program is popular with legislators and local officials.
The transportation board took no action.
The department’s deficit was originally projected to top $456 million but state officials were able to use bond money to offset the shortfall. The department has an annual budget of about $2 billion.
Evans also said some of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s “fast forward” projects will fall victim to the budget woes. The initiative funds short-term congestion relief projects such as traffic signals and ramp meters, as well as accelerating schedules for major construction projects.
“A lot of those projects we aren’t going to be able to proceed with,” Evans said.
Still, some road projects are moving forward even as the department trims costs. On Friday the board moved to allot about $100 million in federal dollars for road projects. Those dollars cannot be used for things such as salaries and other expenses, Evans said.
In a letter to board members, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle urged them to make dollars for roadways the top priority, even if it mean reducing personnel.
“These are tough choices, but the citizens of Georgia are counting on all of us to be the best stewards of their tax dollars,” Cagle wrote.
Board member David Doss said that by scaling back projects the department could make the state’s economic downturn even worse by leaving highway contractors “on the verge of bankruptcy.”
“The best way to get money into the economy is through a public works program,” he said.
The cuts come as Georgia – which has some of the worst commute times in the nation around metro-Atlanta – looks to improve roads and add rail lines.