Facing scrutiny from their constituents and an $11.5 million revenue shortfall, Hall County commissioners now say they plan to sell the Liberty Mutual building on Browns Bridge Road.
The commission bought the building less than a year ago with plans to move the county’s administrative offices there by November.
County officials said then the $6.1 million purchase would save taxpayers money on planned building expansions and make county offices more user-friendly.
But Commission Chairman Tom Oliver said Monday he has already talked to a prospective buyer for the building he originally agreed to buy.
“We’re looking at our options,” Oliver said. “The main thing is we’re looking at our options and the consensus may be that we need to adjust our thinking on that project.”
At recent meetings on the county’s $11.5 million budget deficit, residents angry about proposed cuts to county parks, libraries and emergency services have pelted the commissioners with criticism about the August purchase of the Browns Bridge Road facility.
“Y’all had no business buying that Liberty Mutual building,” Gainesville resident Renee Jarrell said at a public hearing Thursday. “...Y’all need to take a Dave Ramsey course and learn to live on rice and beans.”
After Thursday’s public hearing, Commissioner Billy Powell said he did not think county residents understood exactly how the building was funded. Powell, like Oliver, voted to purchase the building with a line of credit that would be repaid with revenue from the special purpose local option sales tax.
“The general population voted for those projects on (a referendum for SPLOST VI),” Powell said. “This was an alternative to a construction project that would have saved us several million dollars.”
Still, Powell said Jarrell’s comments had moved him to reconsider the relocation.
Oliver said Monday that commissioners began to reconsider the move to Browns Bridge Road once they started planning the county’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year and realized revenue was in short supply.
Though county officials were able to rely on sales tax revenues to purchase the building, at least $722,000 would be needed from the county’s general fund in the upcoming fiscal year to maintain it.
And until she receives “absolute direction” from the board, Interim Finance Director Lisa Johnsa said she’s still including some $800,000 in planned expenditures for fiscal year 2012 to pay for the upkeep of the building on Browns Bridge Road.
She said the budgeted money has “nothing to do with constructing” or renovating the building, but covers monthly payments to a management company for the upkeep of the building throughout the fiscal year.
The cost of renovating the building from insurance company to county offices, according to one commissioner, would be much more.
Commissioners recently learned the county would have to shell out between $5 million and $8.5 million — almost as much, if not $3.5 million more, than the cost of the original purchase — to renovate Liberty Mutual, according to Commissioner Ashley Bell.
Bell called the decision to buy Liberty Mutual a “bad mistake.”
Bell was the sole vote against purchasing the building last August. Commissioners Craig Lutz and Scott Gibbs had not yet been elected to the board when the commission originally voted to buy the building.
“It’s probably the silliest thing we’ve done since I’ve been on the commission is buy a building without knowing the cost of moving into it,” Bell said.
Bell said the purchase of the building hit the county twice: first in cost of upkeep and second in lost property tax revenue.
“We can’t afford to move in it, and now it’s our property, so they’re not paying property taxes anymore,” Bell told residents gathered at a community meeting Saturday. “...That giant building was contributing to the (tax) base and now it’s off the tax rolls and it’s just sitting there.”
He said the commission was trying to sell the building “as quickly as possible.”
“I would say we could use that money somewhere else, but I would almost be fudging if I told you we had it in the first place to do that,” Bell said. “...I think it was fictitious. I don’t think we ever had the money to do any of that.”
And though he’s looking for buyers, Oliver still stands by his original decision to purchase the building as a cost-saving measure for the county.
“Eventually, this project would pay,” he said Monday.