By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Cuts in Hall County budget to hit Service Center hard
County to slice funds for agency that provides buses, senior programs, meals
Placeholder Image

A $120,000 cut in county government support to the Community Service Center could result in as much as a half-million dollar hit to the human service agency, the center's director said Friday.

How it will impact services provided by the center won't be clear for at least two months, said Director Phillippa Lewis Moss.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners approved a spending plan Thursday that, in many ways, transforms the way the government does business.

Facing an $11.5 million revenue shortfall, commissioners crafted a budget that pared down even the most essential government services, with even less mercy on human service agencies.

The $85.6 million budget eliminated local support of the Department of Family and Children Services and reduced a previous appropriation of nearly $624,000 to the Community Service Center by 20 percent.

The center is the umbrella organization for Hall Area Transit, the local Meals on Wheels program, the Senior Life Center and plays host to a number of counseling programs for local residents.

Its funding comes mostly from state and federal grants, which are largely dependent upon local financial participation. Hall County and Gainesville have, for more than 10 years, shared costs for the center based on the percentage of residents from the city who use the center's programs versus that of residents outside the city's limits.

In all, the cuts could mean the center runs on about 85 percent of the funds it is used to, Moss said.

And, as Milon Christman, who coordinates the center's Meals on Wheels program, explained it to commissioners Thursday, the county's reduction in funding will set off a domino effect of money loss for the center.

"It's ouch and then it's ouch, ouch, ouch," Christman told the board.

Moss said the one-two, then three-four punch could set the center back by as much as $500,000. And the loss of county funding she witnessed four commissioners vote for Thursday, she said, was the largest funding reduction she's experienced in her time with the center.

"We've never been asked to take a reduction of that size," Moss said. "What happened (Thursday) was monumental."

Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett has given Moss 60 to 90 days to decide the best way to proceed with the smaller budget. Until then, services will remain the same.

On Friday, employees of the center spent much of the morning reassuring residents that the center's services are the same, at least for now, and letting them know that the center will give notice if programs will be cut or reduced.

By noon, more than dozens of clients and residents had called the center asking it their programs had been eliminated, Moss said.

"We had quite a few seniors who posed the question ‘Am I getting a meal today?'" Moss said. "And that's just incredibly sad."

Though she couldn't say Friday how she'd deal with the new funding reality, Moss said it will likely result in either fewer operating hours or employee layoffs. The employees at the center are considered Gainesville employees under a local funding agreement.

"Because we've taken hits along the way for the last three years, honest to God, we have very little else to cut without negatively impacting services," Moss said.

"This is the first time a cut will have a negative impact on services. ... We're saying ‘no' to a lot of people for the first time in our history."

Thursday's commission vote came after hundreds of supporters showed up in support of the center's programs.

A number of them extolled the virtues of the local transit service, many saying their mobility would be severely limited without it, and others shared personal experiences of how they'd been helped by the center's counseling programs.

But there were others who said the government shouldn't fund human service agencies, especially if it might require a tax increase.

Pam Norman, the wife of former state Senate candidate Jimmy Norman, was one of them. Norman urged the residents who supported the funding for the Community Service Center to write a check from their own accounts to the agency.

"The government should not be providing charitable services of any kind," Norman said at a public hearing before the commission voted Thursday. "One cannot be charitable with others' money."

Commissioners, while still leaving about $500,000 in the appropriation for the center, followed suit and reduced its charitable budget to preserve public safety and emergency services without a tax increase, for the most part.

Commissioners did approve a roll-up in tax rates to shore up revenues for the fire fund. The tax increase, by law, is considered revenue neutral, because it only allows the government to raise rates enough to offset devalued properties.

Commission Chairman Tom Oliver opposed the cuts the center, offering instead a tax increase that would have preserved funding for the center as well as for parks and employee retirement contributions, among other funding.

Moss said opponents of government involvement in human services don't acknowledge that communities have changed, and that families may not always be present to support each other.

And she expects the trend of people who no longer feel that human services are an essential government service will likely mean continued cuts to her agency.

"I think this train has left the track, and I don't know if we'll ever be able to get it back," Moss said.