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Facing tight budgets, schools, local governments look to state legislators
Georgia also facing budget woes
Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, speaks Thursday during a presentation at the Hall County prelegislative conference at Lanier Technical College. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Story: Native son Cagle says Georgia will bounce back from recession

OAKWOOD — Delegations from county and municipal governments, school boards and two state colleges spent a few minutes Thursday making their requests known to Hall County’s state lawmakers.

With the state facing a budget shortfall now estimated at $2 billion, lawmakers have little to promise in terms of results.

"I haven’t seen wish lists today," said state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. "I think they’ve put in priority what the needs are to keep them operating."

Rogers and fellow state Reps. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, and Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, along with state Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, spent the day in a conference room at Lanier Technical College listening to local governments in 15 to 20 minute increments.

Likely to be gone again from the state budget are local assistance grants, smaller appropriations to pay for county and municipal projects ranging from sidewalks to fire trucks. Local governments traditionally have looked to the state for some help in paying for some projects.

"We’re feeling the crunch on the state level this year," Mills said. "I think (local governments) are going to feel it tremendously next year."

Mills said property values have come down, and he believes property tax assessments should, too.

"As a property owner, I certainly do not expect my property to be assessed at the same value it was a year ago," Mills said.

He believes a smaller tax digest will adversely impact local collections.

Gainesville officials also addressed concerns with property taxes.

In his address to legislators, interim City Manager Kip Padgett mentioned House Resolution 1, which would cap property tax assessments, and asked legislators to consider comprehensive tax reform "just so we don’t piecemeal it together like we tried to last year with the GREAT Plan."

For Hall County officials, much of the dialogue centered around county revenues. County commissioners prepared a list of five major points they want to be considered by the general assembly.

"We don’t have a spending problem; we have a revenue problem," Hall Commissioner Billy Powell said.

Among their top requests were state help keeping the Homeowner Tax Credit reimbursement, which reimburses the county for revenue loss, and help with low sales tax collections.

Budget problems also are a concern in the health care community.

Deb Bailey, director of governmental affairs for Northeast Georgia Health System, said she was concerned about potential cuts to the Medicaid budget and how those might affect Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

Bailey said the hospital already is suffering because its rate of Medicaid reimbursement hasn’t increased since 2002.

"Last year’s General Assembly passed an increase, but it never went into effect because of the budget cuts," she said.

Dr. David Westfall, director of District 2 Public Health, said his 13-county district has had 21 job positions eliminated and 23 vacant positions frozen. But he is most concerned about a severe reduction in funding for the family planning program, which forced the Hall County Health Department to close its satellite clinic on Atlanta Street.

The area’s judges also told legislators that state funding cuts are hurting the judicial system.

Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin said the loss of state funding for senior judges to help move case dockets along has proven detrimental and could have a worsening effect on caseload management as time goes on.

Chief Superior Court Judge C. Andrew Fuller said that the Northeastern Judicial Circuit’s four judges have held off asking for a fifth full-time, state-funded judgeship in deference to the county’s budgetary concerns and the need to first add a new state court judge in Hall County.

Judge Jason Deal noted that treatment and accountability courts like the felony drug court he oversees have proven to be money-savers for the county in reducing repeat offenses and putting people on track to lead productive lives. Deal said he appreciated the state and county continuing to fund these courts.

While some local requests might not make it into the state budget, one major construction project that could move forward is the $28 million academic building at Gainesville State College. Design funds for the building were approved last year, and construction of the new building has been recommended in a package approved by the University System Board of Regents.

College president Martha Nesbitt told the legislators the average classroom at Gainesville State College is used 35 hours per week, compared to a university system average of 20 hours per week.

"It is putting a significant stress on our facilities and cannot continue to increase without serious consequences," Nesbitt said in prepared remarks.

She also asked for help in funding more full-time faculty. Presently the college has 165 full-time instructors and more than 222 part-time faculty.

Flowery Branch officials also are seeking help with improvements. They want state lawmakers to adopt a framework for governments to go forward with planned tax allocation districts. Flowery Branch has crafted a 567-acre district, with plans to enliven its downtown district and breathe life into vacant areas around Thurmon Tanner Parkway and Phil Niekro Boulevard.

A tax allocation district is an underdeveloped or blighted area that local governments can target for improvement using property taxes from future developments as the primary funding source.

Hall County and Gainesville school system leaders implored the local delegation to push for more flexibility in state funding, spending and instructional mandates.

Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville schools, said the flexibility in class size constraints and financial mandates granted to Gainesville schools due to its charter system status have helped the system to provide a quality education for students during trying economic times. Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, also asked legislators to reinstate funds for textbooks and transportation that have waned in recent years. Additionally, Schofield and Dyer asked legislators to deny support for private school voucher programs.

Staff writers Ashley Fielding, Debbie Gilbert, Jeff Gill, Stephen Gurr, Jessica Jordan and Melissa Weinman contributed to this report.