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Our Views: What’s the plan for Hall County budget?

Commissioners still reject tax hike, seek austere cuts as clock ticks toward deadline

POSTED: June 26, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Here's the question for the gang of three that is in control of the Hall County Board of Commissioners: What's the plan for adopting a budget that makes sense for the county before Thursday's deadline?

Whether you like it or not, Chairman Tom Oliver has put forth one. It calls for a slight tax increase to avoid draconian reductions in county services. Other members of the board don't like that plan.

Fine. So what's theirs?

Unfortunately, there isn't one. Some commissioners have made it clear what they are against. It remains to be seen what they are for.

To date, efforts toward balancing a budget for next year have been piecemeal and willy-nilly, as evidenced by last week's decision to move forward with the elimination of 32 county employees, even before a final decision has yet to be made on next year's budget.

Commissioner Scott Gibbs said the layoffs were inevitable, and the county saved $24,000 by not waiting. But how do you know layoffs are inevitable if you don't yet have a budget? And how do you know you didn't need to lay off 50 rather than 32?

Thursday, commissioners are holding two public hearings for input. Holding public input sessions on the same day the budget has to be approved means they aren't going to pay much attention to anything said. They can't; they won't have time.

With only days before a final vote, there's still no consensus as to where spending for the county government is headed. Massive cuts in parks have been proposed, but some commissioners are opposed. Closing libraries is an option, but some commissioners want certain libraries to stay open. And so it goes, line by line through the process.

No matter what happens, more reductions in county jobs are likely, but which jobs in which departments are in danger is still up for debate. And the deadline clock is ticking down.

While a few commissioners are feverishly working on their own separate budget plans to unveil next week in hopes of finding common ground, it's way late in the game for such a major undertaking. With so little time left, there is no chance the budget that passes will receive the careful consideration needed to do the job right.

A protracted, line-item vote on the budget seems a distinct, and dangerous, possibility, with commissioners adding and subtracting as they go in an attempt to reach a magic number.

Despite sometimes dire financial straits, many people have stepped forward in recent weeks to say they think the investment of a slight tax increase is worth the additional cost. They have said that if an extra $100 a year means most parks and libraries can stay open, and other government services can continue at the level necessary to make the county a good place to live, then it's money well spent.

Others are adamantly against a tax increase for any reason, no matter what the impact is on quality of life. Theirs obviously is the more politically popular position - no elected official wants to be remembered for raising taxes - and it has become the rallying cry for the Gang of Three.

We are left, then, awaiting a spending plan from Commissioners Gibbs and Craig Lutz, both of whom have had to deal with bankruptcies of their own in recent months, and Commissioner Ashley Bell, who has failed to show the same financial acumen for the county budget that he has displayed in campaign fundraisers for himself from Atlanta to Savannah. Apparently it's easier to figure out how to take money from strangers for future political campaigns than it is to balance the county budget.

For some, the solution to the county's woes is simply to cut spending, jobs, programs and services. Just cut. And yet the county has cut. In 2009, Hall's general fund budget was $97.9 million, which had been cut to $90.5 million for the 2011 budget.

The initial proposed budget for 2012 drops that total to $85.9 million. But to reach that figure, the county will have to decrease services in public works and road maintenance; close parks and libraries; eliminate ambulances and the personnel needed to staff them; dramatically cut support of human service agencies; and eliminate positions in law enforcement and the courts. That proposal has been discussed at length for weeks, and we still don't know where a majority of the commission stands.

So how much cutting is enough?

According to one ranking service, Hall County was the 38th best place in the nation for new businesses to locate in 2011. New businesses mean economic growth and jobs, but they aren't going to come here if basic government services and programs aren't available.

The county has gone to great lengths to balance expenditures on the backs of its employees by eliminating jobs, cutting pay with mandated furloughs, withholding payments to retirement funds and forgoing pay increases. Since October 2008, county offices have been closed one day per month as a savings measure.

Among other compensation cuts, the proposal for the 2012 budget would eliminate nine paid holidays for employees, in addition to the 12 furlough days. That means an entire work-month of hours eliminated from employees' pay. Beyond the impact on employees, how much will those changes inconvenience local residents in their efforts to do business with the county?

So what's the plan? Sadly, we still don't know. The three commissioners in the driver's seat for the budgeting process have made it clear what they oppose, but it's anyone's guess what they favor. Remember, this is the same trio that wasted hundreds of thousands of county dollars earlier this year by bringing in an Atlanta law firm to serve on an interim basis until a new county attorney could be hired. Then they rehired the same attorney we had before.

That's their idea of efficient expenditures of money. That's their idea of financial stewardship. That's their idea of a plan.



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