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Commissioner wants millage rate designed for parks, leisure
Oliver proposed 1.41 mill bump
Tayshaun Shelton, 6, rinses the mud from his shoes at a Laurel Park water spigot Thursday afternoon as he visits the park for a picnic lunch.

While Hall County officials are considering a number of proposals — including raising property taxes — to immediately patch an $11.5 million budgetary hole, they are also looking at ways to protect county-sponsored quality of life programs in the future.

Commissioner Ashley Bell has suggested the county reconsider creating a millage rate specially designated to fund the county's Parks and Leisure Services.

After residents begged the commission earlier this month not to cut funding for the county's parks department, Chairman Tom Oliver proposed an increase in property taxes to salvage the service.

A previous budget, created without any tax increase, threatened to close as many as 16 county parks. The county's current budget proposal, which includes a property tax increase of at least 1.41 mills for Hall taxpayers, salvages most of those parks in the coming budget year.

Bell wants to look a little further. He wants county residents to decide if they want to guarantee funding for the county's parks with a designated millage rate much like the one Gainesville property owners pay for city parks.

Gainesville charges 75 cents on every $1,000 of assessed property value to prop up its Parks and Recreation Department.

The millage rate can range as high, though, as 1 mill, according to Gainesville's Administrative Services Director Melody Marlowe.

In Gainesville, officials expect the millage rate will bring in some $2.3 million for the city's Parks and Recreation fund this year.

The specially designated property tax is responsible for more than half of the department's $4 million in operating expenses. Another $1.4 million comes from user fees. The rest comes from money left over from previous budget years, revenue from sales of assets and interest earned
on investments.

When the city parks department has capital needs, sometimes it gets help from other city funds, but mostly, the department runs on its own, Marlowe said.

City voters agreed to the parks millage rate in a special referendum in 1924, said Parks Director Melvin Cooper. The referendum allowed for the city to charge between 0.75 mills and 1 mill to fund city services. Initially, the millage rate made possible Ivy Terrace Park and City Park, Cooper said.

Hall County tried something similar in 2001, with a ballot measure questioning whether residents wanted to have a special millage rate for county parks, too.

It failed.

But as the make up of the county has changed, and so many residents spoke against proposed cuts earlier this month, Bell wants to put the question on the ballot next year alongside a question on Sunday liquor sales. In the meantime, he also wants to find a way for the county's parks to become more reliant on user fees.

He says the measures might guarantee the "future viability" of parks and leisure services in the county.

And at least three county commissioners agree with Bell's decision to let the voters decide.

Commissioner Craig Lutz said he is in favor of the referendum as long as taxpayers dollars aren't used in the process, either for marketing or for funding a special election.

"I believe in the ballot box and don't have an issue with that," Lutz said.

But since there will already be a referendum on next year's ballot to decide on Sunday alcohol sales, Commissioner Billy Powell said there was no harm in adding another question.

"It doesn't cost anything to add one more choice on the ballot," Powell said.

Scott Gibbs also said the proposal was at least worth a second look. Along with guaranteeing funding for parks, the specially designated millage rate could take the burden of decision-making for parks off the county commission and put it on an independent board, Gibbs said.

"The city has done it for years and it seems to have worked for them," Gibbs said.

But Oliver, who said at Thursday's commission meeting that he had not curried enough favor to pass his current budget proposal, said he didn't understand the sentiment.

Oliver has proposed a budget that includes a tax increase of at least 1.41 mills to save the county's parks and emergency services.

The budget has received its first public hearing, but so far, the majority of commissioners have been unwilling to support such an increase in property taxes.

Oliver said Bell's proposal was, in essence, another tax increase.

"How do you propose a tax increase to be voted on in November, and you don't think enough of a tax increase to protect the parks now?" Oliver asked. "Go figure."