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Hall's wish lists for the General Assembly

This year, local officials are asking state for help to survive budget woes

POSTED: December 14, 2008 12:30 a.m.

With the state mired in a budget shortfall that has been estimated at $2 billion, the governor has ordered up a fiscal diet.

State agencies have been ordered to prepare cuts of 6, 8 and 10 percent. The higher amounts are likely to have deeper impact, including loss of jobs and unpaid furloughs.

Local governments also depend on state help for various projects. Traditionally, local officials, from county commissioners to school board members, take their wish lists to their state lawmakers. This year, the wish lists are gone and the primary wish is for survival.

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who represents the southeastern portion of Hall County, said the cuts being proposed now will be painful.

"I'm concerned because about five years ago we cut most of the fat out," Benton said. "Now if we start cutting, we're going to get into meat and muscle and it's going to impact local school systems."

Benton said in Jackson County, taxpayers are bearing 49 percent of the cost of the school system. He thinks the model ratio is 80 percent state and 20 percent local. In Barrow County, the other county represented by Benton, taxpayers are paying a 51 percent share.

This week, members of the Hall County delegation heard the yearly appeals from local governments for state assistance.

State Sen. Lee Hawkins, R- Gainesville, said local governments were feeling the impact of dwindling state funds a year ago.

"I think the people who appeared before us accentuated what they have said before," Hawkins said. "The school groups were talking about how they are going to education children with less funds amid new math requirements."

Local educators from all levels outlined to legislators this week that cuts already made to state funding could force them to cut back on faculty and is leaving them short of operational funds.

But it is not just schools who are looking to the state.

"Cities and counties are very concerned about how they're going to fund their projects and do what they need to do," Hawkins said.

A proposed House resolution would cap property tax assessments, a suggestion that is cause for alarm for officials from both Gainesville and Hall County officials, who already are struggling with shrinking revenue in the poor economy. Officials from both governments also discussed ways of making it easier to collect all the sales taxes due to them in a timely and more efficient manner.

Here's what local governments are asking for:

Hall County
The Board of Commissioners prepared a list of five major points it wants the General Assembly to consider next year, several aimed at helping sagging county revenues.

"We don't have a spending problem, we have a revenue problem," said Commissioner Billy Powell.

The commission urged state legislators to vote to keep the Homeowner Tax Relief Grant, which reimburses counties for revenues lost through homestead exemptions on property taxes. Perdue has looked at cutting the program next year to help alleviate the state's $1.6 billion deficit. That would leave Hall County with its own $2 million deficit and mean increasing the property tax $200 for every household.

"We just want to make sure this (grant) comes back," said Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver.

Rep. James Mills said he is in favor of keeping the Homeowner Tax Relief Grant in place.

"I intend to maintain that," Mills said. "Property taxes continue to be the biggest burden."

In addition to discussion of revenues, county officials also talked about open records requests. Hall officials say they have become burdened by the number of requests received each month, with fees for copies at 25 cents a page.

"I think it's time for an increase," said Commissioner Bobby Banks. "It's not enough for the number we're getting."

Both county and state officials agreed on the importance of open government, and Mills said he would look into an increase, but it would require changing a state law.

Gainesville
In addition to worries about revenue, Gainesville officials also lobbied legislators for traffic signals.

Interim City Manager Kip Padgett said the state Department of Transportation has twice denied a permit request for a traffic signal at the driveway of the future Gainesville Middle School and the Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center. The signal will be imperative to traffic needs on Jesse Jewell Parkway once the middle school opens in August 2009. With a projection of nearly 1,500 students attending the school, another 795 cars could be at the intersection each morning, Padgett said.

"In our opinion, it's too late to wait for a traffic light until after school's in session," said Padgett. "Then you're going to have a nightmare."

Padgett also asked the delegation to support a bill that would create a transportation sales tax that would allow the city to collect a one-cent tax to be used for transportation projects.

Hall County, Gainesville city schools
Hall County and Gainesville schools superintendents were unified in pushing for more financial and instructional flexibility for local school systems to use as a fiscal management tool during tough economic times.

Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, implored legislators to consider the portion local systems shoulder in implementing state mandates, such as annual 2 percent teacher pay raises and class size limits. He said the raises alone will cost the school system about $2 million in local funds this year.

Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville schools, said due in part to some exemptions as a result of its charter system status, the system has been able to make nearly $3.8 million in budget cuts so far this fiscal year. Temporarily relaxing state mandates further could help all school systems, Dyer said.

Lanier Tech, Gainesville State College
Lanier Technical College President Mike Moye and Gainesville State College President Martha Nesbitt each asked legislators to help facilitate fund allocations for new buildings on the campuses to accommodate growing enrollment.

Moye said he "planted the seed" with legislators for a new 90,000-square-foot building on Lanier Tech's Oakwood campus that could be used to house health care, public service and economic development education departments.

Nesbitt said legislators already approved the design and funds for a $28 million building at Gainesville State College, but stressed to the local delegation that it's "imperative" the allocation of funds for the $31 million project come through this year to address the college's "space deficit."

She said in the past three years, enrollment has grown 16 percent at the college's Oakwood campus.

Flowery Branch
Flowery Branch officials also are trying to plan for growth. They want state lawmakers to adopt a framework for governments to go forward with planned tax allocation districts. A tax allocation district is an underdeveloped or blighted area that local governments can target for improvement using property taxes from future developments as the primary funding source.

Flowery Branch has crafted a 567-acre district, with plans to enliven its downtown district and breathe life into vacant areas around Thurmon Tanner Parkway and Phil Niekro Boulevard.

James Riker, planning director for Flowery Branch, told City Council on Wednesday that the city has no specific requests for legislators, due to the budget shortfall.

Court system
Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin said the loss of state funding for senior judges to help move case dockets along has proven detrimental and could have a worsening effect on caseload management as time goes on. Senior judges, who were paid $500 a day, served as stopgaps in circuits with growing caseloads that had not added state-funded judges. State funding for senior judges was cut from the budget in August.

Chief Superior Court Judge C. Andrew Fuller said that the Northeastern Judicial circuit's four judges have held off asking for a fifth full-time, state-funded judgeship in deference to the county's budgetary concerns and the need to first add a new state court judge in Hall County.

Judge Jason Deal noted that treatment and accountability courts like the felony drug court he oversees have proven to be money-savers for the county in reducing repeat offenses and putting people on track to lead productive lives. Deal said he appreciated the state and county continuing to fund these courts.

In addition, Hall County Chief Juvenile Court Cliff Joliff asked that while lawmakers consider a revision of juvenile law, they not create unfunded mandates. He asked that when considering budget cuts, they carefully weigh the impacts they have on children and consider targeted cuts versus across-the-board cuts.

District 2 Public Health
Dr. David Westfall, director of District 2 Public Health in Gainesville, said state budget cuts have already had a severe impact on public health in the 13-county Northeast Georgia area.

"Each of the county health departments has lost about 20 percent of its state funding," he said. "Across the district, 21 job positions have been eliminated, and 23 existing vacancies cannot be filled."

Westfall said he is especially upset about the reduction in one particular service. "A decision was made at the state level to decrease the family planning and adolescent health program dramatically," he said. "That has forced us to close our satellite clinic on Atlanta Street."

Westfall said if family planning services are eliminated across the state, it could lead to an additional 48,000 unplanned pregnancies.

Knowing about Georgia's budget problems, Westfall didn't come to the legislators with a wish list in hand.

But he did offer encouragement. "There may be legislation introduced (in January) to increase the excise tax on cigarettes, and we support that effort," he said. "It would cut down on the number of young people who start smoking."

Northeast Georgia Health Systems
Deb Bailey, director of governmental affairs for Northeast Georgia Health System, is concerned about a policy change on the administrative fees paid by managed care companies that Georgia's Medicaid program contracts with. Now those fees will have to be paid by all health insurers, a move that would cost the health system millions of dollars.

Bailey said she's also looking forward to the findings of a legislative study committee that's been examining how much charity care a not-for-profit hospital should have to provide in order to keep its tax-exempt status. Northeast Georgia Medical Center spends more than the average hospital on indigent care.

Bailey also told legislators that the medical center also has one of the busiest emergency departments in the state, despite not being a designated trauma center.

"In the current economic environment, the legislators said they felt it would be very difficult to fund a trauma system," she said. "We would encourage the legislature, when they do fund trauma, to include high-volume ERs like ours, not just designated trauma centers."

Staff writers Ashley Fielding, Debbie Gilbert, Jeff Gill, Stephen Gurr, Jessica Jordan and Melissa Weinman contributed to this story.




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