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Mecum: Hall’s finances solid for future

State of County address touches on water, public safety

POSTED: January 11, 2014 11:39 p.m.

In his first State of the County speech, Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum expressed cautious optimism for county budget’s future.

“The county is healthy. It’s good — our budgets are good,” Mecum said Saturday. “We’re trying to poise ourselves to get ready for the future.”

Mecum made the remarks to Hall County Republicans, packed into Denny’s on Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville. Public officials and residents took time over their breakfasts to listen to Mecum’s address and discuss the county’s past year and future goals.

After the meeting, County Administrator Randy Knighton credited commissioners past and present for helping pull through tough financial times.

“The county is in a very solid position ... but we understand we have to be very cautious,” Knighton said.

Mecum said investments should prioritize strategic plans to make the county’s infrastructure more business-friendly. The execution of such plans aren’t cheap, but necessary, he said.

“Sewer, water, roads — these kinds of things. It’s expensive,” he said, citing the myriad sewer tangibles that officials must confront, based on how much the county is OK with spending.

“We would like to take some various areas of sewer on (Ga.) 365 and also on Friendship Road. Can we afford to do that and pay out of pocket?” Mecum said. “We do not want to go into debt; we want to be able to pay for it. But we want to be able to set the table for these things, because businesses are coming.”

He warned that nearby metro Atlanta counties were less prepared for population booms.

“I remember in the 1970s when Gwinnett was 200,000, and today it’s 850,000. It’s coming straight at us,” he said.

Mecum warned that economic indicators still leave much to be desired during a slow recovery from the Great Recession.

He cited bonuses for county employees as an example.

“We felt it was important to get a bonus to them,” Mecum said. “We’re not in an economy yet when I could give a cost-of-living increase or merit increase because once you give it, you can’t take it back. If you do, then you’re causing more morale problems than you can imagine.”

Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard said the bonus had invigorated her office of 24 employees.

“The morale difference that that made at Christmas time. I’ve had no one leave, everyone’s been dedicated, but the gift the commission gave was tremendous,” Woodard said.

County employees have not been given raises in five years.

“It’s not a gift; it’s earned,” Mecum said. “To hang in there and do what you’re doing day after day, with no increases in salary, nothing. ... You’ve got to keep your personnel happy or you’ll lose them.”

Mecum also said it’s near impossible to predict the impact of health care reform on local economies. Many sweeping changes passed by President Barack Obama in 2010 began Jan. 1, but the law won’t be fully implemented until 2020.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Nobody seems to know what’s going to happen until it takes effect.”

Mecum also took questions from attendees, and other public officials chipped in to address concerns.

One resident asked if Lake Lanier’s capacity could be increased, which directed Mecum to the Glades Reservoir, the 850-acre reservoir planned for North Hall.

“As far as the Glades, it keeps being pushed back, pushed back, pushed back,” Mecum said. “We were expected to get a permit this year, now it’s been pushed back to next year. It’s just a moving target, constantly.”

Obtaining a permit to build the reservoir is the first step.

Commissioner Scott Gibbs added that said federal control of the lake by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers complicates the project.

“Even though Lake Lanier is on our backyard, it is a federal lake,” Gibbs said. “That’s not our water — it belongs to the federal government. Glades will be Hall County’s water.”

Mecum said there had been one major positive development for the project the past year: state funds.

“The governor is providing us money,” he said. “We originally as a county put around $12 to $13 million into the Glades, and it looks like we’re going to get $12 to 14 million back. It’s very good.”

Mecum also touted measures to equalize the tax base, explained by Steve Watson, chief appraiser for the Hall County Tax Assessors Office. Watson said property owners’ with unaccounted lands, including more than 1,800 boat docks, are being brought into the tax base through audits. That could bring in $45 million to $60 million in tax revenue.

“That’s just equalization,” Watson said. “Some people will see it as regressive, but the progressive thing about it is it’s going to alleviate the unfair tax burden other people have had to pay as a result of someone else not paying their fair share.”

Mecum said the general fund balance is in a healthier state than year’s past — about $20 million, versus $6 million in 2009. And the reserves served their “rainy day” function quite literally.

“Remember the storms that came through in the spring and they just washed our roads out?” Mecum said. “You go down to Stephens Road and the water had just washed that whole road out.”

The rebuilding cost for the road concerned commissioners, at $850,000 alone, not including other nearby damaged roads.

“Because we had a positive fund balance, that means we had something to back up on and we could fix it and pay cash and not have to borrow money, that’s what you’re after,” Mecum said. “You want to be able to fix things, you want to be able to do things in the county, particularly in emergency situations, without borrowing any money.”

Mecum said changes at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office will also benefit the county, including Sheriff Gerald Couch’s move to establish North and South Hall precincts.

“It will be a great asset to that end of the county,” Mecum said of the South precinct. “And that’s where the growth is; that’s where the action is.”

An aging patrol fleet still needs replacing, he said, but complimented Couch’s use of resources.

“Some the vehicles that the sheriff was having to deal with were up around 200,000 miles. That’s a liability waiting to happen,” he said. “We gave (Couch) him enough money for 10 vehicles, and got 17.”

The county advanced public safety in another arena, Mecum said: fire protection.

“We get a better (Insurance Services Office) rating, the cheaper your insurance is,” he said, alleviating rates for homeowners who rates skyrocketed when the ISO reassessed the county.


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