City of Sandy Springs department heads have been told to plan for 20% budget cuts for fiscal year 2021 and to freeze most hiring in the wake of the pandemic shutdowns, it was revealed during the first virtual budget workshop on May 5.

City Manager Andrea Surratt — who recently recovered from COVID-19 — told the City Council that “to be prudent, [staff estimated] a reduction of revenue somewhere in the neighborhood of 25%, although this is a best guess.”

Still pending is a report on whether the city saved money by its move a year ago to bring in-house previously outsourced government services. That controversial decision, presented as possibly temporary, largely reversed a model of government the city had touted as trailblazing.

Councilmember Chris Burnett asked for the report, which was promised when the shift was made in May 2019. And Councilmember John Paulson asked if the city is realizing the estimated $2.5 million in savings. Surratt said the report is still a few weeks away.

Mayor Rusty Paul said it’s too soon to consider moving back to privatization of city services. Engineering services and other consultants have a backlog of work to complete. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic haven’t caught up to them yet. He said city staff will prepare requests for proposals to issue to find out if savings can be realized in the coming months when the time is right.

The city projects more than $4.6 million for subcontractors in the next fiscal year.

The current fiscal year 2020 general fund budget was originally adopted at $116 million.

The budget process changed slightly as proposed budget cuts won’t be revealed until the second budget workshop. That virtual meeting will be held on Zoom and livestreamed on Facebook on Tuesday, May 12 at 3 p.m.

The budget picture

Surratt said the staff is paying close attention to revenue sources that are sensitive to the business climate, including motor vehicle and title ad valorem tax, local option sales tax, business occupational taxes, alcohol taxes and hotel/motel taxes.

On the expenditure side, department heads identified as many cuts as possible, Surratt said.

“And we were able to get to a 20% reduction in expenditures without drastically altering the performance of the organization. But it definitely limits the number of programs we can see through,” she said.

Surratt told the City Council that staff has prepared four options with budget cuts from 5 to 20%. One of those will be presented as staff’s proposal in the second budget workshop.

The city has frozen most new hires and will not replace any workers who retire. Public safety is the only area not affected by the hiring freeze.

Police Chief Kenneth DeSimone said he needs two more non-sworn and one part-time officer to handle the large number of open record requests that primarily are for accident and incident reports.

“It takes a lot of civilian staff to process those,” he said.

He also plans to replace seven marked cars and two administrative vehicles, with $506,000 designated in the operations budget.

The 2021 budget will include more than $15.4 million for capital projects. How much more is not clear because no figures were released for a possible new public safety headquarters project. Surratt said that is a matter to discuss in an executive session.

The capital project priorities included $4 million for a new Fire Station 2 and $4 million for Ga. 400 bridge enhancements. The paveing program would get $2.6 million. Another $1.23 million was designated for improvements to the Peachtree-Dunwoody Road/Windsor Parkway intersection. Other intersection and operation improvements, plus the traffic management program, would get a combined $500,000.

Replacing the synthetic turf at Hammond Park and making drainage improvements to reduce erosion would cost an estimated $1 million. Another $500,000 would go toward a trail master plan design.

Other recreation capital costs were an intergovernmental agreement with Fulton County on Sandy Springs Middle School, replacement of the Allen Road Park playground, and a Ga. 400 multi-use trail. Together, those capital projects were budgeted $285,000.

For its operations budget, Sandy Springs anticipates paying $8.2 million on bond principal and interest. The Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center was expected to cost $1.6 million.

The city has not completely shifted all operations in-house. Subcontractor agreements are expected to cost $4.65 million. Projects handled by subcontractors for Public Works include street maintenance, sweeping, mowing, striping, signage and stormwater maintenance. The call center, radio authority and E911 services also are handled by subcontractors, with $1.03 million in the fiscal year 2021 budget.

Fire Department Chief Keith Sanders said the department will continue replacing fire apparatus, using funds budgeted for leasing on new vehicles. He said it would take up to a year for the new trucks to be built and brought to the city.

Another $462,500 was proposed for nonprofits in the city. The city will take over the festival, concerts and farmers market from Heritage Sandy Springs, cutting that organization from the budget, after previously announcing it was taking over operations.

The city’s nonprofit funding increased because the Keep Sandy Springs Beautiful Hazardous Waste collection bi-annual event falls in 2021.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.