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Commission candidates face tough budget if elected
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About the issues
This is the first of a three-part series taking a look at issues that will face newly elected county commissioners. On Wednesday, learn more about what has sometimes been a volatile relationship between the Hall County government and the governments of its cities. On Friday, learn more about water and sewer issues in the county.

It’s the beginning of a new year — for government at least.

On July 1, fiscal year 2011 begins, and with it comes a new budget, followed shortly by at least one new commissioner.

On July 20, Hall County residents will be asked to elect a District 1 commissioner to represent South Hall and a District 3 commissioner to represent much of North Hall and East Hall.

Those who take office will become acutely aware of one overriding issue that could easily define their terms: the budget.

For the last two years, Hall County has been fighting against declining revenues brought on by the recession.

Beth Brown, a spokeswoman for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, a training and legislative organization for county governments, said commissioners elected this year will have tough decisions ahead.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Brown said. “Certainly somebody who steps up to run for office right now has a whole set of different challenges than someone who did it 10 years ago. This is a tougher time to govern for sure.”

Around the state, counties are having to find ways to cut spending and increase revenue. Brown said this year, ACCG will make sure commissioners are ready to tackle budget issues through training education provided by the organization.

“What we want to try and do with the new batch of commissioners that are coming in is really help them understand the foundation for what it takes for decision making when it comes to the budget,” Brown said. “We want them to totally understand the budget cycle and process for their county.”

Brown said there can be a lot of complexities in the budgeting process.

“A lot of folks that run for office don’t understand what mandated services are and what they have to provide because state law requires it,” Brown said. “It’s not discretionary, they have to pay for it. Likewise, understand the revenue sources — where they come from, and in some cases (that they) are legally restricted.”

In fiscal year 2009, Hall County began a number of measures to combat declining revenues, including employee furlough days, a hiring freeze and a halt to all capital purchases. The cost savings has added up to about $9 million.

“I think we’ve done the responsible thing,” County Administrator Charley Nix said. “By starting them over two years ago, we are able to see the cumulative effect.”

Nix said he believes the county is stable through the end of fiscal year 2011 — which ends June 30, 2011 — but what lies ahead is uncertain.

“If the revenues continue to fall beyond 2011, that’s the big question: What’s the next step?”

Hall County Finance Director Michaela Thompson said the biggest problem the county faces is tax revenue.

“We need to grow fund balance and address continued demand on service,” Thompson said. “The biggest thing is related to consumer spending. The whole reason for these cuts (was) rapid decline in revenue.”

Thompson said while recovery likely will be slow, she is hopeful things will start to improve.

If maintaining the budget isn’t enough of a challenge, finding additional money to buy new cars and equipment will be.

After three years of heavy use, county vehicles and machinery are beginning to break down.

“We probably will be looking for something in excess of $2 (million) to 3 million,” Nix said. “They have a finite life.”

Nix said employees make up the lion’s share of the county’s operating budget, leaving little in other areas that can be cut.

“There’s no huge gain to be found,” Nix said. “You simply won’t find that kind of money. You have to go into the employee base.”

The choice commissioners could be left with is whether to lay off employees and decrease services or increase the millage rate.

“They aren’t popular decisions, but at the end of the day the important thing is knowing what your options are,” Nix said.