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Hall County budget scuffle: More money, more dissent

Budgeting tricky as economy ticks up, many expect more funding

POSTED: June 22, 2014 12:30 a.m.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners will vote on a 2015 fiscal year budget Thursday, but getting to this point has been trying for county staff, commissioners and residents.

The process has been fraught with shifting spending proposals, discontent about the process from within and growing animosity among residents, particularly lakefront homeowners, about the possibility of a tax increase.

In fact, internal communications obtained by The Times through an open records request reveal just how trying the budget process has been on county officials as they continue to deal with the lingering effects of the recession and slow-to-come recovery.

For example, in an April email to Assistant County Manager Marty Nix and Finance Director Vickie Neikirk, County Administrator Randy Knighton wrote, “We probably need to schedule time next week to begin going over the budget requests. Given the number of departments and agencies seeking increases, it will likely take more time than the past few years.”

Indeed, there is a nearly $10 million gap between projected revenues and department spending requests. And this promises disappointment for county staff seeking to expand or improve services.

Commission Chairman Richard Mecum took these concerns further in an email obtained by The Times.

“This year’s budget process has been difficult,” he wrote. “With lack of additional financial recourses, and increased demand for services, the budget process has been increasingly trying.”

Hall County officials are now considering two scenarios that would fix the general fund budget at $90.6 million.

The first keeps the property tax rate in place at 6.25 mills and uses just $2.1 million in reserve funds to balance the budget.

A mill represents $1 for every $1,000 in assessed value. The county assesses property at 40 percent.

Keeping the property tax rate unchanged would generate about $1.5 million in additional revenue, but it also amounts to a tax increase.

The second option rolls back the tax rate to 5.989 mills, which would make the budget revenue neutral after a 6.58 percent increase in the tax digest this year due primarily to the reassessment on values of lakefront properties. As a result, an additional $1.5 million in fund balance would be used to balance the budget.

But during an open house in May, which gave residents a first look at the proposed budget, county officials had proposed a roughly $92 million spending plan while rolling back the property tax rate to 6.008 mills.

In the weeks between the first and latest proposals, county officials seem to have scrambled to address the many competing interests vying for a slice of the budget pie.

Should the sheriff’s office get the full allocation of new patrol cars it wants? Should funds be allocated for a new judge in the juvenile court system? What about merit raises or cost-of-living adjustments for county workers, who have gone without both for several years?

These are just a few of the questions county officials have had to consider.

Lack of communication an issue

Of course, the conflict among officials appears to run much deeper, in part because communication seems lacking.

Take Tax Commissioner Darla Eden, for example.

She has raised the ire of the county administration and commissioners. It began when she was weeks late in turning in her budget requests.

Nix, the assistant county manager, wrote to Eden in an April 11 email, “Unless we receive your budget by Wednesday April 16, we will not include any expanded budget request that you may have in the FY15 budget. It is imperative that you respect the budget schedule and react accordingly.”

When Eden finally submitted her budget, suspicion grew even more. Tips poured into The Times about her requests for additional staff and a $20,000 pay raise Eden sought for herself.

Eden defends the request for a raise by pointing out other elected officials, such as the probate judge, clerk of court and county sheriff, receive supplements to their base salaries worth between $12,800 and $44,000. Eden said she should also receive such a supplement for her role as ex-officio sheriff and chief deputy registrar.

But the winds of fortune are not blowing in her direction.

Knighton, in an email to Eden, wrote, “Given the challenges of the budget, many if not most requests for expanded programs or staff additions were not granted. In addition, we are presented with challenges when a budget is submitted a full month late. As you know, we have met with you numerous times in the past year regarding financial operation of your office. In addition, you met with all county commissioners at various points during the year and as late as a few weeks ago.”

Eden disputes that point.

“I have had email correspondence with two commissioners regarding FY15 budget, but no formal meetings on same,” she told The Times in an email.

Process left in the dark

While Eden has become reflective of the contentious budget process, she’s certainly not the only one appears to have been left high and dry.

Hall County Library System Director Adrian Mixson’s requests to reopen the East Hall library branch have fallen on deaf ears for months. Moreover, Mixson appears to have been left in the dark about his budget until the open house in late May.

On May 22, Mixson emailed The Times with this inquiry: “Have you seen a copy of the county budget for FY 2015? If so, what is with the library’s appropriations?”

The budget process has been less than transparent. For example, The Times has had difficulty getting some budget documents, receiving incomplete documentation after filing open records requests.

In addition, it appears county administration preferred to keep budget proposals under wraps until the open house.

An email from Neikirk addressing requests for documents spelled this out: “... We typically do not give out anything to the press until we have had the budget meetings,” she wrote. “(The reporter) will get the budget when we present it to the public.”

If the process were more open, county officials may see more public input, something they say they desire. Instead, turnout at the open house was limited to mostly elected officials and county staff. There’s even a running joke among county officials that those forums become more of a social gathering for county employees as a result of poor public attendance.

Of course, some might say this poor turnout is an indictment on the apathy of county residents. But then, they pay the salaries of county officials, and that also gives them a leg up in the argument.

At the first public hearing on the budget June 12, public comment from a dozen or so residents was strictly aimed at the reassessment of lakefront properties and the resulting increase in taxes for about 90 percent of these homeowners.

But it was revealing that many of the residents who spoke before the county commission had as many questions as comments about how and why the reassessments were done.

Commissioner Craig Lutz, who did not seek re-election and whose term on the board will soon end as Kathy Cooper takes his place, is taking no prisoners in the budget process. He has laid out his demands about what he will and won’t support in no uncertain terms.

But Lutz’s biggest concern seems to be the process itself.

In an email to his fellow commissioners in late May, Lutz wrote, “As a commissioner who is charged by the citizens of Hall County to levy taxes and fund government, it is unbelievable the lack of information, lack of transparency and lack of deliberation we have in our process.”

Some could accuse Lutz of burning bridges or going out in a metaphorical hail of gunfire. But he is pushing for a process that is more inclusive of the public.

“It is hard to believe that as a commission, we have allowed administration to become a filter as to what we see and hear, or worse that we allow ourselves to be broken into small groups to hear from the other elected officials,” Lutz wrote.


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