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Commissioners may roll up taxes in final budget vote
Public hearings precede decision on Hall County's 2012 spending plan
An early afternoon public hearing on the Hall County budget.

Hall County commissioners may be working out a budget compromise this afternoon as the final hour nears for them to decide on a spending plan for the fiscal year that begins Friday.

The five commissioners, whose opinions on how to plug an $11.5 million budgetary hole have ranged from a tax increase to transformative cuts in county services, may meet somewhere in between those two extremes at a 6 p.m. meeting at the Georgia Mountains Center.

Speaking to The Times after a public hearing this afternoon on the government's budget, Commissioner Scott Gibbs said board members may move tonight to roll up the government's tax rate enough to raise county revenues by $1.25 million.

Such a tax increase would help save some of the funding for the county's Parks and Leisure Services Department and the Hall County Community Service Center.

A roll-up is an increase in tax rates that offsets the losses in property values. Commissioners already have agreed on such a tax increase for fire services.

But few have advocated for a tax increase of any kind to support general operations. Gibbs has previously said he would not support such a move. But Tuesday afternoon, he said he might support at least a partial roll-up in the tax rate.

Commissioner Billy Powell has also expressed an interest in a roll-up. Commissioner Ashley Bell has said he would consider it, but did not return a phone message Wednesday seeking comment on his plans.

"We're talking about it," Gibbs said. "We're hashing out the details."

Still, Gibbs said it is also possible that commissioners will not raise tax rates tonight. He said he did not know whether Commissioner Craig Lutz would support the roll-up.

A final public hearing on the budget begins tonight. It follows one commissioners held at noon in the center's arena in which supporters of the Hall County Community Service Center showed up in mass to advocate against possible cuts to its programs.

The center serves as the umbrella agency for Meals on Wheels, Hall Area Transit and the Senior Life Center.

Of at least 200 people gathered in the arena, most of whom spoke warned commissioners against the impact of cuts in funding to the community service center.

Many waved fans with names of at-risk center programs written in permanent marker on the back. Many were elderly. And many wore buttons emblazoned with symbols signifying their love for the Red Rabbit bus service.

In the last two weeks, commissioners have been considering another $120,000 cut in funding to the agency, which the director has warned would set off a domino effect of funding cuts from the Gainesville government, as well as state and federal agencies.

A number of those who spoke Thursday afternoon spoke on the behalf of people with physical disabilities who relied on the county's transit service for independence.

Mike Hall, a Flowery Branch resident, said he and many others rely on Hall Area Transit to get to work and doctors' appointments.

"Hall Area Transit is the way I do things. I wouldn't be able to do otherwise," Hall said.

Others spoke on the behalf of people who relied on the center's Meals on Wheels program, which delivers meals to people unable to cook for themselves or afford assisted living.

Gainesville resident Melinda Lane said she would be "very happy" to sacrifice a restaurant meal twice a week to afford a higher tax bill for services like those provided by the program.

"We're all in this together and I don't want to see the least of us take the worst hits," Lane said.

Chairman Tom Oliver said Thursday afternoon that he would like to see his original proposal, which seeks to soften the blow of the budget axe with a tax increase, to pass. Both Oliver and Bell have been outspoken in their opposition to a proposal to cut money from the Community Service Center.

Oliver proposed a tax increase last month of at least 1.41 mills to bring in an other $8 million in revenue for the county. His proposal still included the elimination of 56 county employees, who were laid off last week.

So far, Oliver has said that his proposal did not have the support to pass.

"In an ideal world, I would like to present my proposal and have two more hands go up with me," said Oliver.

Oliver said none of the other commissioners had contacted him by Thursday afternoon about supporting a roll-up in the tax rate.

The chairman said he felt a roll-up would only be "a band-aid on a situation." But the chairman contended that his proposal would sustain the county in a way that would keep commissioners from facing future layoffs of county employees or questions of a tax increase next year.

"I think we've got to be very careful how we vote," Oliver said.