The growth is coming from the south, but will the money come from there, too?
Budgets at the local and state level are improving after years of deficits and cuts, but is it enough to keep up with new demands?
These questions linger after Hall County Chairman Richard Mecum delivered his annual state of the county speech to members of the local Republican Party on Saturday morning in Gainesville.
The challenges are great, but Mecum is optimistic. When asked to describe the state of the county, he replied, “Very good.”
Unlike similar addresses at the state and national level, the local message is much more encompassing of the past, present and future: looking back, taking stock and setting goals.
There are many positive signs for the local and regional economy, Mecum said, as the jobless rate falls and home prices rise. While those figures have not returned to pre-recession levels, the benefits to the county’s budget are apparent, Mecum said.
Revenues were up 5 percent in November compared with the previous year, while expenses had fallen 5 percent. And local option sales tax revenue had increased 7 percent.
In the worst throes of the recession, the county’s reserves had dipped under $7 million, but today have rebounded to more than $22 million, Mecum said.
But despite the trend lines, the forecast remains cloudy. That’s due in large part, Mecum said, to the county’s transportation needs.
State lawmakers introduced a $1 billion transportation plan in the legislature last week, and Mecum identified project costs in the county. Resurfacing 1,086 miles of county roads would cost an estimated $121 million, for example. Widening Spout Springs Road in South Hall, long a prized project, will run about $104 million.
Mecum said the county has to facilitate economic growth, such as the recent expansion of Kubota Manufacturing into the Gateway Industrial Centre on Ga. 365.
But with job growth and millions in private investment last year, Mecum said growth is already showing signs of a resurgence in Hall County.
“We’ve become an international community and didn’t know it,” he said.
The opening of new fire stations and Sheriff’s Office precincts last year are evidence of local government trying to keep up with new demand, Mecum said.
“I mean to tell you, it is growing,” he added. “You can’t stop it.”
Harkening back to his own days in Gwinnett County, Mecum said Hall could learn lessons, good and bad, about how to manage growth from its neighbor to the south.
The population trajectory for Hall County, which is projected to more than triple over the next 40 years, mirrors what Gwinnett experienced between 1970 and 2010.
“Not everything Gwinnett did was wrong,” Mecum said.
Mecum said he has several goals for 2015, including updating the comprehensive plan to better reflect new growth and building out road and sewer infrastructure. Getting these things done will require some help, however.
Mecum said it is important for county voters to approve the extension of a 1 percent special purpose local option sales tax in March, which will fund infrastructure and economic development projects.
Additionally, Mecum said the county needs to seek broader cooperation with state government to ensure that local transportation projects are on the legislature’s funding agenda.