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Dont cut parks, pay, residents tell Bell
Saturday public meeting continues debate over countys budget choices
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Again and again Saturday, residents told Commissioner Ashley Bell that they worried about the consequences of a budget that crippled Hall County's parks, libraries and employees.

Bell allowed residents to comment on the county's plan to close an $11.5 million hole in its fiscal year 2012 budget at a monthly meeting he held Saturday with Gainesville City Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras.

Commissioner Craig Lutz held his own hearing on the budget Saturday night in Flowery Branch. Lutz has repeatedly opposed a tax hike.

Bell has said he will reserve his opinion on Chairman Tom Oliver's proposed tax increase of 1.41 mills until he hears from his constituents, but he has promised to try and salvage county services without raising taxes.

Comments Saturday, mostly from county employees, were overwhelmingly against the cuts proposed in a budget released June 2.

The proposal eliminates funding for two county ambulances, reduces the parks budget by some 78 percent, cuts libraries by more than 20 percent, threatens to cut employees' holiday pay and reduces the county workforce by about 100 employees.

"We serve you, and we're asking now, please. We have put in these furlough days; we haven't had a raise. We're asking that you please support us now, help us," said Deborah Couch, a county employee along with her husband. "We're not only begging for our jobs, we're begging for our community. Can you imagine what this county's going to look like with these vacant buildings and the parks closed?"

Like Couch, many of those who spoke said they were willing to face a tax increase if it meant preserving services that keep children out of trouble and emergency vehicles on the road.

"I was taught that we take care of everybody," said Monica Thomas, an intern in the solicitor's office. "And it's some people that needs y'all's help."

But real estate executive Jack Waldrip stood, almost on his own, against any talk of a tax hike Saturday. Waldrip said the proposed 1.41 mill increase, which would result in the owner of a $180,000 home paying about $100 a year more in taxes, would have a much higher cost for the business community.

"The business community can't afford (a tax increase). The money is not there," Waldrip said. "There's people, right now, that's not making their house payments and they're in fear right now of losing their homes. How are they going to pay any more taxes? They can't."

Waldrip said he did not want to see county employees take another cut in pay, but said his employees now only work four-day weeks. He said raising taxes on businesses in the county would have far-reaching impacts on the local economy.

"We've got to have answers. You cannot say, ‘let's just hit the other guy, the business community,'" Waldrip said. "Because guess what? Then we start losing on the other end ... everyone's hurting on that side, too."

But Waldrip was in the minority Saturday. Other Gainesville residents, from attorney Dan Summer to Gainesville Gang Task Force Investigator Joe Amerling, said they would pay more if it meant supporting the county's public safety and emergency responders, earning applause from the crowd.

"I'm actually pretty heavily-invested in the real estate community, so any tax increase is going to substantially affect us," Summer said. "The right thing to do for the people in this county is raise my taxes. They deserve it. We cannot ask them to sacrifice any more. Men and women in uniform take bullets ... and they have sacrificed. It's not too much for the rest of us to dig a little deeper and do the right thing."

Charles Morrow, brother of late Gainesville Mayor John Morrow, said the issue to him was the community's children. He, too, said he is willing to pay more in taxes to keep parks and libraries open today than more later to fund the county jail.

"Education, to me, is one of the most important things that a community can do for its children," said Morrow. "You take away the libraries and you take away a source of learning for kids. You take away athletics, and you take away development for kids. What you do, you leave them out in the open where they can be brought into various nonpolitical, nonsocial activities, which are negative to the community."

"And what does that do? ... It increases the amount of money that you have to pay in taxes to maintain them in the jails."

Others shared concerns that the county would digress. Building it back, they said, would be more work than maintaining its current status.

"We have a quality of life for a citizenry that is the envy of many," Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff said. "One could debate whether we have luxuries or not, but I don't want to see this county slip backward. If we do, I worry about what it will take to ever get it back."

Bell said commissioners will spend the coming weeks trying to find a solution that reflect constituents' desires. He said he hoped to meet everyone's needs, but that closing the county's $11.5 million budget hole will change the face of the government.

"What I hope you get from this is the understanding that the way we do government is going to change one way or the other," said Bell. "There is no magic bucket of money somewhere that we can come and make this right."

Commissioners, including Bell, recently agreed to put Oliver's budget proposal on the table for discussion. The discussion will push an adoption of the county's spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 to the last day of June.

Bell has not said if he would vote in favor of Oliver's proposal. However, he is considering moving the county's parks department to a user-based system, heavily-reliant on fees, and privatizing services.

But an outspoken resident in his district also expressed concerns about that Saturday.

"Ashley, it ain't time for us to start privatizing," Eugene Whelchel said. "To take this from us, it's damage. It's damage to our livelihood."

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