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Hall County now proposing $90.6 million budget

POSTED: June 13, 2014 12:07 a.m.

Hall County officials are now considering a $90.6 million budget for the 2015 fiscal year, a 4 percent increase over the adopted 2014 budget, and down from about $92 million just a few weeks ago. 

The change reflects the fluid nature of the budget process, with finance officials working through evolving revenue projections. 

The latest budget was unveiled Thursday night at the first of three public hearings and includes two different funding scenarios. 

The first keeps the property tax rate in place at 6.25 and uses about $2.18 million in reserve funds to balance the budget, down from an initial proposal of $5.6 million in reserve funds. 

Keeping the property tax rate unchanged would generate about $1.5 million in additional revenue. 

But that increase would largely fall on the backs of lakefront homeowners after reassessments of property values this year. About 90 percent of these properties saw increases in their assessed value, with the average increase about 39 percent. 

The re-evaluation of properties primarily accounts for a 6.58 percent increase in the overall tax digest, or taxable properties, over the last year. As a result, keeping the rate at 6.25 would amount to a tax increase. 

The second budget scenario rolls back the tax rate to 5.989, which would make the budget revenue-neutral. As a result, an additional $1.5 million in fund balance would be used to balance the budget. 

The dozen or so residents who spoke at the hearing Thursday all opposed a tax increase, insisting property owners, particularly those who own lakefront homes, could not afford the growing expense. 

There were several minutes of discussion about how the millage rate is set, how much revenue would be generated from a tax increase and how the reassessments were managed. Then a few residents drove home their concerns. 

“We just purchased our home in August 2013, so we’re not real familiar with the political atmosphere in Hall County,” said resident Kimberly Baker. “We’ve gotten a good dose of it through the reassessments, I can say, though.” 

Resident Ron House said, “We’re quickly heading in a direction where this is not going to be an affordable place to live.”

And Nancy Atwood, who owns two properties in Hall County, cautioned that the economy was not healthy enough to justify a tax increase. 

“I think rolling back the millage rate is the right thing to do,” she said. “I think we should be careful and only get what we absolutely have to have.” 

When public comment deviated from talk of taxes, residents roundly expressed support for cutting the budget further. 

For example, House questioned why public safety spending is increasing year after year. It accounts for about 45 percent of the budget in the latest proposal. 

Residents also questioned plans to fund a BMX park in North Hall, though this money comes from a dedicated source funded by fees primarily generated from lake marinas. 

Commissioner Craig Lutz piggybacked on these calls for additional spending reductions, calling on his board colleagues to consider cuts to court services, administration and other departments. 

“I’m still hoping we can make some of those tough decisions,” Lutz said. “The fact is this budget is an expansion of government service.” 

And, indeed, most county departments will see funding increases if the $90.6 million budget is approved, regardless of either tax scenario. 

In closing a $10 million gap between projected revenues and expense requests, the county is now including additional funds for the tax commissioner’s office to move three part-time positions to full time. It also includes funding for a new juvenile court judge. 

However, the budget still does not include merit raises or cost-of-living increases for county employees. It does eliminate positions that were frozen during the recession. 

Commissioner Billy Powell said he would like to address compensation for employees, but added, “You can see the resistance that we’re seeing right now without that.” 

All commissioners but Lutz have indicated they might be willing to support a tax increase, but they also caution they aren’t ready to commit just yet. 

“I would feel more comfortable with no roll-up at all,” Commissioner Scott Gibbs said. “I’m not saying one way or the other. I think you’re going to see the (budget) change some more.” 

Commissioner Jeff Stowe, who has said he doesn’t believe keeping the tax rate unchanged should qualify as a tax increase, said he hopes the commission can find some compromise, perhaps settling on a tax rate somewhere between 6.25 and 5.989. 

“It’s still too early to say this is where it’s going to be,” Stowe said, adding that determining the exact amount of revenue coming in and then determining how much reserve funds to use will provide a clearer picture of where to set the tax rate. 

If there has been one area of agreement among the commissioners, it’s that they want to use as little of the reserve fund as possible. 

The county has built up about $23 million in its reserve for use in emergency situations. This amounts to about three months of county operating expenses, and keeping it at that level helps improve the county’s bond ratings. 

But dipping into this reserve, however much, seems a foregone conclusion to balance the budget. 

“There’s never enough money ..” said Finance Director Vickie Neikirk. 

Two more budget hearings will be held at 3 p.m. June 23 and 6 p.m. June 26 at the Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville.



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