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Analysis: Hall leaders reflect on turbulent era, look ahead to 2015 challenges
Though worst of recession budget cuts are past, sales tax vote looms large
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Ringing in the New Year often comes with both reflection and anticipation, looking back on what was and looking ahead to what might be.

For the Hall County Board of Commissioners, the last few years have been filled with tough choices and controversial decisions.

And while 2015 will undoubtedly bring its fair share of challenges, commissioners past and present told The Times local government is in a much better financial situation to handle whatever difficulties this year holds.

Of course, taxpayers have the final say, and they’ll get to voice their opinion on a very critical issue in March that could set the stage for how officials manage the county budget for years to come.

Looking back

Balancing deficits had become the norm just a few short years ago as the recession seemed to grip tighter and tighter around local, state and national government.

“I don’t think anybody understood — and put me at the top of the list — the depths the recession was going to reach,” said Commissioner Scott Gibbs. “We had never seen the magnitude that (this recession) was.”

In Hall County, the recession meant slashing funds across most departments, implementing worker furlough days and halting retirement contributions.

It also meant an overhaul of Hall’s top administrative officials, including replacing the finance director and county administrator and his assistant in early 2011.

Former Commission Chairman Tom Oliver, who opposed the firings, told The Times last week the financial situation of the county was “chaotic” at that time and that no one could have predicted how bad things could get.

“There is a very, very fine line one has to walk,” he said.

The decisions the board made, particularly in 2011 when faced with a more than $11 million hole in the budget, sparked the ire of county taxpayers. County employees and residents faced the brunt of severe budget cuts as benefits were slashed and services scaled back.

It also pitted some of the commissioners against one another, with Gibbs and former commissioners Craig Lutz and Ashley Bell on one side and Oliver and Commissioner Billy Powell on the other.

“We felt like things needed to be done in such an expeditious manner that would probably be best if we brought in a new group to handle that, a group that wasn’t tied to what we had always done before,” Lutz said of the firings.

Oliver called the firings an incredibly tough experience.

“Was it executed as cleanly as it should have been? Probably not,” Lutz said. “But certainly I think that we made a good decision.”

With blame getting tossed around like a hot potato, the ax ultimately fell on administrative officials at the very top, though taxpayers got their own say in 2012 when Bell and Oliver lost re-election bids.

“Every commission has its own challenges,” unique to their particular time, Bell said. “We met those challenges the best way we could.”

In time, furlough days were scrapped, retirement contributions were restored and departmental cuts became less significant, with some agencies seeing new funding. All the while, the property tax rate was never raised.

“When it came time to make tough decisions, I think everyone ... is willing to do what is in the best interest of the county,” Bell said. “There’s always going to be things you can look back on and say you could have done a bit differently. That’s part of growing.”

But while some of the wounds inflicted by the worst of the recession have healed, residents and taxpayers of Hall County remain on the mend in many ways.

Even while the job market improves and home prices increase, wages have not kept up with new growth and many low-income, working-class families remain dependent on social service organizations like the Salvation Army to supplement their income.

On the opposite end of the economic spectrum, lakefront residents are still fuming from increases in assessments on their houses in 2014, which saw property taxes rise on about 90 percent of these homeowners.

Looking forward

One of the brighter aspects of the county budget is the significant increase in reserve funds over the past few years, up from a low of about $6 million to over $22 million now, according to officials.

These funds can help sustain the county in times of emergencies when unexpected spending is necessary, such as during severe winter weather storms.

“I do think the county is in a lot more sound position,” Gibbs said.

But current commissioners said one major challenge stands in the way in 2015: SPLOST VII.

“I think SPLOST is going to play a big factor in how we legislate,” Commissioner Jeff Stowe said.

If voters do not approve a new five-year round of special purpose local option sales tax, officials said they are unsure how they will balance the budget heading into 2016.

Yet there is another option.

“You can pay for (SPLOST projects) out of the general fund,” Gibbs said. “It just means a higher (property tax) rate.”

These not-so-veiled threats have been repeated by other commissioners, particularly in recent months as officials tried to gin up greater interest in and public support for SPLOST VII. A vote on the measure is now scheduled for March 17.

But some taxpayers have lobbed their own warnings at county officials during public input meetings, telling The Times they do not support the tax, which is meant to primarily fund infrastructure projects, such as sewers and roads.

Stowe said positive examples of projects funded by SPLOST include construction of the county’s new prison, set to open next year, as well as parks like Cherokee Bluffs in South Hall.

“I’ve never believed that growth is just for the sake of growing,” Lutz said, adding that growth must be diversified enough not to become burdensome.

This means striking a balance, such as complementing a business park with affordable housing.

But the recent history of SPLOST is the perhaps the biggest obstacle to getting the tax passed. Funds have been used for projects never specifically approved by voters, and revenues have fallen well short of projections.

Moreover, development issues are inherently laced with controversy as county residents often focus on protecting their quality of life while county officials focus on expanding the tax base.

And as metro Atlanta creeps closer and closer, voters might be asking themselves just how far they’re willing to go to mimic the big city. It’s one thing to reap the rewards, and another to pay for its costs.

“Gwinnett (County) is kind of like the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Commissioner Richard Mecum said.

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