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Hall budget concerns highlight State of County address
Commissioners agree that furloughs, cuts, taxes are major challenge
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There's at least one fact that all five Hall County commissioners supported Saturday. This year's budget is going to be one of the toughest yet.

At the Hall County Republican Party's State of the County meeting at the Gainesville Elks Lodge, the commissioners set aside tension from their first week to talk about the reality of cuts, furloughs and taxes.

"I've changed my speech three times, and I'm still debating what to talk about, but at the same time, I'm going to start with the talk that I had first written last week," Oliver said, launching into a story about how Hall County emergency personnel and hospital staff saved Grier Todd, Lake Lanier Islands' chief operating officer, when he had a heart attack in May.

"What I'm leading up to here is that we have to prioritize where we want to be and what we want to do," Oliver said. "We're having real challenges with revenues, and it could be the biggest challenge the county has ever seen."

Oliver's posed tough questions for residents: What should the government shut down? How much service should the government provide? How does the government train the best emergency and public safety personnel to respond in the shortest amount of time?

"We're looking this year, as budgets come up, to make some real tough changes," he said. "There are the challenges of outsourcing. For instance, with the tricky weather situation developing (tonight), do you want an operation that is controlled by somebody else or an operation that is controlled by you?"

As residents asked questions about property taxes, sales taxes, privatization and cutting staff benefits, Oliver noted he didn't have all the answers but wanted to look at all the possibilities.

"That might include having to go up on taxes. That's what you're going to be faced with," he said. "There are always areas to cut spending, but if we have to cut 20 percent, that means shutting down fire station, patrol units and personnel. What we have to be careful with is keeping that balance. Balance has to be sacred."

Part of the equation includes moving forward with the Glades Reservoir, the 850-acre, 80-million-gallon per day reservoir planned for North Hall, he said.

"The Glades Farm project is going to be a project with implications statewide, though a lot of people will say we don't need it, we don't need to spend the money or we don't know what we're doing," Oliver said. "This could be the biggest project in the state outside of dredging the Savannah port for bigger boats to come through."

Though many questions are still unanswered about the project, the first step is to obtain a permit to build the reservoir.

"I don't think the tri-state water wars will ever be solved. I've been to Washington three times on it, and it moves at a snail's pace," he said. "Water is your next pot of gold. I don't know how we might end up on it, but if we don't start, we won't get anywhere."

Oliver decided not to comment further on last week's forced resignations of the county administrator, assistant county administrator, county attorney and finance director or the hiring of an interim administrator and attorney.

Craig Lutz was the only other commissioner to step up to the podium during the meeting and offered a few words about this week's whirlwind of discussions.

"I just want to say that I really do appreciate the chairman giving this State of the County speech. A lot of good things have happened in the county over the years because of the personality we have at the chair," he said. "We're blessed to have that, even if it goes a step or two beyond where we want it, and I think the citizens put me in place to put some boundaries on things."

But now it's time to move forward with a focus on the issues, he noted.

"The last thing anybody wants is to see a lot of discourse and unsettlement at the government level, and I think it will be brief," Lutz said. "We have a lot of challenges coming up, and I think the team we've put in place will be a great team to address them."

For Lutz and fellow first-year Commissioner Scott Gibbs, this includes not raising taxes.

"We're going to have to ask the citizens what they're willing to do without or what direction they want us to go in," Gibbs said after the meeting. "Unless there's overwhelming support, I wasn't elected with the idea to raise taxes."

Commissioners Billy Powell and Ashley Bell also mentioned the seriousness of the budget in the year ahead.

"Making up the shortfall in one department alone is difficult," Powell said. "That's the unfortunate but beautiful thing about furloughs. We've got to make it up somewhere, and furloughs don't pit one group against another. It'll take everybody working together."

This includes evaluating every expense, especially special purpose local option sales tax funds, Bell said.

"SPLOST needs a lot of work. I think we spent the money before we got it, and now we're paying on debt," he said. "Glades is so necessary, but at the same time, we really have to be precise and deliberate in how we decide to spend."

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