From education to roads, Hall County could see impacts from a proposed 14% in cuts due to declines in tax revenues amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just what the exact impacts will be remains to be seen, as legislators started this week looking at ways to slash the fiscal 2021 state budget, which takes effect July 1.
As that process grinds on at the state Capitol, some information is coming out as to potential impacts across the state. One huge concern is that layoffs and furlough days lay ahead for state workers, including teachers.
There is some hope the state might find relief in another federal economic stimulus bill.
A $3 trillion economic stimulus bill that passed the Democrat-controlled U.S. House earlier this month includes $1 trillion in aid to states.
However, the bill has met resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate. Some GOP members want to delay action to see if the current stimulus is working.
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said compromise is possible, but “it’s probably not going to come close to covering the 14% cut.”
“Certainly, getting some money is better than getting no money,” he said.
State lawmakers, meanwhile, are proceeding as if no aid is coming.
“We will try to minimize the impact on quality of life and day-to-day services for Georgia citizens, as much as possible,” state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville said. “There will be some changes required, clearly.”
He said he is concerned about impacts on tourism, which is especially key in Hall County, with Lake Lanier in its backyard.
“We need to be marketing for drive-time tourism. People don’t want to get on planes right now,” Miller said.
He said he is “adamantly opposed to reducing teacher pay ... as well as first responders, state workers or staff. If we got to take these cuts, in which we do, we want them to be in the form of a furlough day, because that does not impact the retirement system as much and it provides for a structure that teachers and others can plan around.”
Here’s more of a breakdown of how cuts may affect Hall County:
All Hall County and Gainesville City schools are in wait-and-see mode as they prepare for the expected 14% cuts in state funding. The Hall County School District is planning to see a decrease of around $22 million in funds, while the Gainesville City School System will have to cut between $6 million and $6.5 million out of its budget.
The school districts both voted to delay an official budget proposal to the end of July as they await a final decision on cuts from the state legislature. They passed spending resolutions in early May that would maintain their budgets for fiscal year 2020 for one more month.
During a May 11 meeting, Hall Superintendent Will Schofield said he wasn’t comfortable making any specific statements on how the budget cuts would affect schools, but he did say the district would be making an effort to hold off on making any new hires that would fill noncritical vacancies.
“We’re going to have to sharpen our pencil in every area we possibly can to make it through this drought we’re going to go through for the next year or two, three years,” Schofield said at the meeting.
Gainesville is similarly uncertain. During a May 4 meeting, Superintendent Jeremy Williams said he was “not comfortable” saying the school system would need to take furloughs or lay off employees and maintained that they would do everything possible to prevent staffing adjustments or increased class sizes. He also said Gainesville was not under a hiring freeze, and that as of May 4 he was advising school principals to move forward with planned hires for the 2020-2021 school year.
The school systems will have a more detailed idea of what the coming year will hold when the state budget is made official in June.
The University of North Georgia’s proposed budget reduction plan for fiscal year 2021 — which will save the school more than $12 million — includes a furlough plan as well as a hold on all hiring for noncritical positions.
The plan will be submitted for approval to the University System of Georgia and comes in response to University System of Georgia chancellor Steve Wrigley’s request that all USG schools prepare new budget plans that reflect a 14% decrease in funding.
The bulk of the deficit would be made up of a hiring freeze for noncritical vacancies — which will save the school $3 million — and a tiered furlough system designed by the USG that will save a little over $2 million. UNG’s contingency fund will make up for another $1 million.
UNG expects to save another $1 million through a voluntary separation program, which will give incentives to employees eligible for retirement to do so sooner than they had planned. UNG will save another $500,000 by reducing work for part-time, temporary and rehired retiree workers.
The school also plans to eliminate all nonessential travel, which will save another $1 million. According to Kate Maine, vice president of university relations and chief of staff at UNG, this would involve a reduction in intercampus travel as well as travel related to professional development.
“We will prioritize travel that is essential for the business of the university and that supports student success and faculty research, as allowed by public health guidance,” Maine wrote via email.
The school plans to save $2 million by cutting operating supply expenses. Maine said this would involve a reduction in office supply budget as well as in “subscriptions and services that are used to support the university’s students and employees.”
The $1 million budget to support campus improvement projects will also be cut, putting a hold on all facility maintenance and renovation projects. Around $300,000 will be saved through energy reduction efforts and proposed designated furlough days “during which all university offices would be closed” cutting down on utility costs.
“Clearly, there are challenging days ahead,” wrote UNG president Bonita Jacobs in an email addressed to UNG faculty and staff on May 19. “However, I am confident that, through your innovation and resiliency, UNG will continue to provide the best possible educational experiences for our students while also employing appropriate public health protocols to ensure health and safety.”
Many public safety agencies are expected to freeze vacant positions and cut personnel spending in fiscal year 2021 as part of the 14% budget reduction proposal.
At the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, this will mean freezing vacant positions in all programs. Spokeswoman Nelly Miles said it would include 17 scientists, 10 lab techs, six from criminal justice information, three from administration, 28 sworn positions and three non-sworn positions.
The 31 sworn and non-sworn positions come from regional investigative services and would result in a $3.6 million reduction.
Miles said there would also be a change in operational funds by eliminating some overtime and reducing the amount spent on travel, supplies, equipment, repairs and maintenance.
There would also be one furlough day each month for the medical examiner’s office staff and two furlough days each month for all other GBI staff.
The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Georgia State Patrol, listed $7.3 million in funds reduced by freezing vacant positions and another $6 million implementing 24 furlough days for employees.
Some $1.4 million would be cut by delaying the 110th trooper school to fiscal year 2022.
More than $3.8 million would be cut from the Department of Natural Resources’ law enforcement division to reduce personnel and operating costs. DNR Director of Public and Governmental Affairs Josh Hildebrandt said this would be through freezing 21 vacant officer positions.
“No current officers and the positions they hold should be affected by the budget reductions,” Hildebrandt wrote in an email.
These agencies also stressed that these are proposed cuts and the budget process is still in an early phase.
Despite a massive delay in court proceedings in an effort to social distance, multiple offices within the courthouse are expecting furloughs or some form of pay cut for employees.
Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh, who operates in Hall and Dawson counties, said he has not heard yet how much will be cut from the state to his office.
Since the judicial emergency order March 14, trials and grand juries have been on hold until at least Aug. 1. Most court functions happening today involve probation revocations, bond hearings and some pleas.
“Thus far, I anticipate some furlough days for our state-paid employees to the continued detriment, on top of the virus’ effect, to moving cases in a more timely manner, not to mention the morale issue,” Darragh said in a statement. “We are, however, fully aware that so many people have not been able to work at all, and so will seek the silver lining even in difficult situations.”
The local public defender’s office receives funding from the state and the county, with five attorneys, an investigator and office manager considered state employees. Morris said the state provided roughly $792,000 in fiscal year 2020.
“The court system is in a quandary about what to do, because to compel people to come to the courthouse at a time when they’re kind of afraid, and it’s hard to do social distancing at the courthouse,” Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris said.
Furloughs would only continue to halt court business, particularly if the mandated absences conflict with the court schedule, Morris said.
Potential impacts to specific local projects aren’t known yet, but the Georgia Department of Transportation is proposing to cut in areas that are relevant to local governments.
One of those is local maintenance and improvement grants, which area governments use to help resurface local roads.
Also routine maintenance is being slashed.
“We’re reducing litter pickup … statewide (lane) striping, and we’ve eliminated one herbicide cycle,” DOT treasurer Angela Whitworth told the State Transportation Board on May 21.
One area not getting hit is bridge work, per a mandate from Gov. Brian Kemp, Whitworth said.
Otherwise, DOT Commissioner Russell McMurry has said he is watching the progress of a $3 trillion economic stimulus bill that passed the U.S. House earlier this month.
The Democratic-sponsored bill contains transportation funding that “would come to the states in a formula amount,” he said during a recent Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce transportation forum. “And it can … pay for operations, maintenance and administrative expenses, including payroll, which generally federal dollars never do.”
Republicans and President Donald Trump have already rejected the bill, with leaders calling for a “pause” to allow earlier coronavirus recovery spending to work.
Georgia Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said the department’s COVID-19 response receives federal funding and will be unaffected by state budget cuts.
The department’s proposal includes 12 unpaid furlough days for employees and a $17.7 million statewide reduction in funding for county boards of health.
No cuts have been proposed for infectious disease control.
Proposals include cutting $2 million in funds for the Positive Alternatives for Pregnancy and Parenting Grant Program, which provides grants to nonprofits that provide pregnancy support services and encourage alternatives to abortion, along with $1.5 million in funding cuts for maternal mortality and about $1 million less in funds to screen, refer and treat maternal depression in rural and underserved areas of the state. Funds the department gives to other agencies would also be reduced, including decreases in funds for the Georgia Hospital Association, the Georgia Poison Center, Emory Autism Center and Marcus Autism Center.
A $2 million reduction in funds for trauma center readiness, uncompensated care, trauma system development and emergency medical services has also been proposed. Northeast Georgia Health System spokesman Sean Couch said Northeast Georgia Medical Center receives quarterly funds from that program, and while funding varies by quarter, the most recent payment was about $344,000.
Funding for Georgia Memory Net, a statewide early diagnosis and treatment program for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders and dementias, could be reduced “to reflect project expenditures,” according to a Department of Human Services budget presentation.
Memory Net has five centers around Georgia.
Elder Abuse Investigations and Prevention also is targeted for some funding cuts, including in personnel and travel expenses.
Nearly $1.4 million in cuts is proposed for “home-delivered and congregate meals” in each Area Agency on Aging.
The local agency is Legacy Link, which is off Mundy Mill Road in Oakwood. Senior centers receive money from Legacy Link in 12, and the centers provide noon and home-delivered meals. Also, through a state-administered program, seniors can receive home-delivered meals, according to the agency’s website.
Children and families
The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning is proposing cuts of $53 million in Pre-K programs and $8.6 million in child care services, Rian Ringsrud, deputy commissioner of finance and administration, said at a May 14 board meeting.
“It’s not lost on us that these decisions have real-life consequences. These reductions are more than just numbers on a spreadsheet or numbers on a slide,” Ringsrud said.
Pre-K instructional days would be reduced from 180 to 167, and teacher planning days would be cut from 10 to four days. The department will save $32 million by cutting those days. The number of student slots would be reduced from 84,000 to 80,000, and 180 fewer classrooms would be funded. Those cuts amount to a 5% decrease in the amount of students and classrooms. It has not been decided yet where classrooms will be cut.
To save money in child care services, the department would cut a vacant communications specialist position to save about $72,000. Another $408,000 could be saved by redistributing some funding for salaries and benefits from state to federal funds. The department has proposed saving $8.1 million by shifting all 3,000 Quality Rated Subsidy Grant child care slots to Childcare and Parent Services slots. That change will not reduce the number of children served.
CAPS pays for a portion of child care for families who qualify based on income. Quality Rated Subsidy Grants is a similar service that pays child care providers at a higher rate per child.
“By moving these children to the more traditional CAPS Program, providers will receive a lower payment, and families will pay a slightly higher family fee, but they will continue to be served, which was very important to us,” spokesman Reg Griffin said in an email.
The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services is proposing unpaid furlough days for all staff statewide beginning in July and continuing into 2021, Hall County director Latisha Flesher said. Employees will take 12-18 furlough days between July and December and a maximum of 12 days through the rest of the fiscal year, which would restart July 1, 2021. The maximum amount of furlough days per employee would be 30, Flesher said.
Vacant positions will not be filled, and any positions that open up will be filled only if the need is critical, Flesher said. Hall County has two open supervisor positions that will not be filled.
The cuts will save about $92 million statewide, Flesher said. She said employee workload will likely increase. Employees in Hall average a caseload of 25, although that is expected to go up.
“We have not experienced the turnover rate as much as we have in previous years, so we are OK caseload-wise right now,” Flesher said. “With the furloughs coming in July, if it is approved by state leadership, then my fear would be that those staff who may already be kind of teetering on the edge of the fence as to whether or not this job is for them, may go ahead and make the decision to leave us.”
Turnover rate in DFCS is usually above 18% annually, she said.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, are federally funded and will not be impacted by the state budget cuts, Georgia Department of Human Services spokeswoman Patrice Meadows said.
The Georgia Department of Labor, which has an office at 2756 Atlanta Highway in Hall County, is requesting to be exempt from budget cuts as it is overwhelmed already by jobless claims stemming from businesses closing during the pandemic.
Workers are working every day, including weekends, to process a mountain of jobless claims, officials have said.
“We don’t want to get at the end of this, months down the road, and tell these hard-working men and women in the Department of Labor, ‘Great job that you did there, but … I’ve got to let some of you go.’ I don’t think that’s a very good reward,” Commissioner Mark Butler said.
In the film industry, the Georgia Department of Economic Development is looking to cut marketing funds.
“Our marketing for film and video, right now, of course, worldwide all of that has stopped,” Commissioner Pat Wilson told a Senate subcommittee on Thursday, May 28. “We’re working now to reach more of the production studios on how (to reopen filming), but we can do that via the internet … rather than spending a lot of money on marketing.”
Staff writers Nathan Berg, Jeff Gill, Megan Reed and Nick Watson contributed.