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Hall County not alone in budget crunch

Other Ga. counties also face tax increases and dwindling funds

POSTED: August 7, 2011 11:19 p.m.

Hall County may have a tough budget, but it's in good company.

Many counties in the state are facing cuts and tax increases in the next couple of years, said Beth Brown, the director of communications for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

After three years of declining tax digests, those tough options are simply par for the course.

"They've made changes and cut programs and services and done things like tap into reserves when they can. ... They're now having to really make the next level of harder choices. I don't think Hall County is alone by any stretch," Brown said.

At a meeting with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, former Interim County Administrator Jock Connell commented that Hall County's budget is the worst he has ever seen and one of the most challenging in the state.

"I think it's the toughest budget year I've ever seen in local government. There's just a lot of factors that play into that," said Connell, who's staying on with the county in a part-time consulting position. "You've got the national economy, the world economy and the local economy are down, sales tax proceeds are down, property values are down. And at the same time you've got a lot of things that are up. Fuel costs are up, and things like that."

He added next year will probably be just as difficult. Even if the economy turns around at record speeds, local governments will lag 18 to 24 months behind, Connell said.

So if the forecast is bleak all over, why is the budget especially tough for Hall County?

The county had experienced a lot of growth as metropolitan Atlanta expanded and brought an economic pick-me-up northward.

"We have benefited from that growth for several years now, over the past decade, really," Hall County Public Information Officer Nikki Young said.

People were making money and spending money, houses were going up, big investments were made and the future looked rosy.

"It was a booming time," she said.

That's when the economy dropped and the growth stopped, but the increased sales taxes and property taxes lingered. "It did have quite an impact on us when all that growth came to a halt with the recession," Young said.

And that's when county officials began to tighten their belts, County Administrator Randy Knighton said.

"There were previous actions taken by the county in terms of layoffs, no merit increase, no retirement contributions and furlough days for at least three or four years now," he said.

But even with a few years of lean times behind us, counties such as Hall are now having to cut deeper into programs or consider increasing millage rates, Brown said.

Cobb and Clayton counties have both approved tax increases by a 3-2 vote. Cobb County's millage rate jumped from 9.6 to 11.11, and Clayton County's rate increased to 15.813 from 11.327.

Floyd County, with a population of 96,000 compared to Hall's 179,684, has refused to increase taxes. To make up the difference, the commission has voted for deep cuts to county departments.

"If there's any fat, it's gone," said Floyd County Assistant Manager Blaine Williams.

Floyd County's general fund budget is around $40 million, and the county fund balance has peaked at around $18 million or $19 million, Williams said.

But now the balance has been whittled down to $14 million.

"We've had to really eat into that," Williams said.

There are no county employee raises in Floyd, and some county services, including limbs and brush pickup, have been cut, Williams added. The county has also deferred on capital purchases and virtually quit paving roads.

"We should be paving 50 miles a year to keep our 700 miles in good shape, and we've been paving like three and five miles a year," he said.

Floyd County is in its third year of cuts, Williams said.

Forsyth County anticipated economic rough patches and made cuts early, County Manager Doug Derrer said.
With a population of 180,000, Forsyth is closer in size to Hall than Floyd.

"We made decisions three years ago that have made a positive impact on our financial health," Derrer said.

In 2008, Forsyth County officials met with department heads to consider cuts and hired representatives from the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government to conduct a staff utilization study.

Over the next 12 to 18 months, county officials reduced the workforce through layoffs and left county jobs vacant, Derrer said.

Forsyth County also made cuts to its planning and development department as the housing market dropped, he added.

Since those cuts, Forsyth County's millage rate has held steady at 7.656 mils.

In 2008, the general fund budget was at $104 million. The budget dropped to $79 million in 2010, and climbed to $88 million in 2011. The preliminary budget for 2012 is set for $92 million, Derrer said.

The county also had to reduce the number of paid holidays, but in 2011 officials were able to restore some of those holidays, he added.

 



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