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Hall County's 2015 budget outlook brighter

As revenues rise, some seek to restore previous funding in some areas

POSTED: May 11, 2014 12:30 a.m.

Preliminary figures have Hall County officials estimating the tax digest has grown between 3 and 5 percent over the last year, numbers that bode well for the county’s 2015 fiscal year budget.

That increase is primarily a result of lakefront property tax reassessments, but also because of new construction and what is called “real growth.”

Though officials expect general fund revenues to increase only slightly, no tax increases or major budget cuts are likely. In fact, the days of major budget downsizing appear over, despite warnings from officials that the county is not out of the woods yet.

But it seems the devastating rounds of cuts made in recent years, particularly to close an $11.5 million deficit in 2011, will not be repeated, and that the restoration of services and new jobs could be on its way, however slowly.

In 2011, the county laid off 79 workers while freezing an additional 48 positions that have yet to be filled. Additionally, four parks were closed, though one has been reopened to meet overflow demand for lacrosse and soccer tournaments.
But no additional layoffs have been made, and the county has restored a 4 percent retirement base contribution and scrapped furlough days.

The Gainesville-Hall Community Service Center, county tax office and library system got hit particularly hard by the recession and resultant trickle-down cuts.

For example, about $120,000 in county funding was slashed for the service center in 2011, bringing an end to counseling and psychotherapy services, as well as the Building Better Babies program. And there appears to be no move to revive them.

“I don’t think there’s a political will to do that,” center Director Phillippa Lewis Moss said.

The center also became a victim of federal sequestration, with two rounds of budget cuts hitting in the 2013 calendar year, including an $85,000 reduction last November.

The Senior Life Center felt the greatest impact, with cuts coming when service demands are increasing as the baby boomer population enters retirement.

“We couldn’t even think about what tomorrow was going to look like,” Moss said. “We were essentially in survival mode.”

But the worst has passed and federal funding is likely to be restored, Moss said.

Meanwhile, Gainesville is expected to contribute about $562,000 for the next fiscal year, and Hall County is likely to provide more than $400,000.

Moss said she is hoping plans to renovate the senior center and increase services can now be jump-started.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

As the county’s general fund stabilizes, budget requests typically coincide with increases in the tax digest.

This year, requests for appropriations are up across several departments as additional personnel and resources are sought.

One example of this can be found in the tax commissioner’s requests.

After enduring several blows in 2011, including the shuttering of two satellite tag offices in the northern and southern parts of the county, Tax Commissioner Darla Eden said she believes now is the time to restore these services.

She has requested between $500,000 and $600,000 in new funding to reopen the South Hall branch and hire full-time staff to support the operation.

Eden said the need to reopen the tag office comes as the tax office’s workload has increased about 30 percent in the last year, primarily as a result of implementing the new title ad valorem tax.

With a heavier workload, Eden said she is looking to increase full-time staff and reclassify other positions to keep up with customer demands.

There has been some pushback to these requests, but even a bump in funding would be a reflection of how far removed the county now is from the days of deficits, layoffs and service cuts.

Of course, the improving fiscal outlook comes with many caveats, one of which can be seen in the challenges facing the Hall County Library System.

The library’s East Hall branch was closed several years ago as lean budget times set in. And despite his best efforts to reopen it, even if in a limited capacity, library system Director Adrian Mixson said reallocating funds for this branch remains a long shot.

“As far as I know, the county is still going to turn it into a (health) clinic” for county employees, he said.

Because of the fiscal challenges, Mixson said it is important for the library system to tap additional funding streams, including federal and state grants, SPLOST revenue and fundraising by Friends of the Hall County Library.

“I’m still waiting to find out what the county intends as far as the budget goes,” Mixson said.


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