Members of the public offered two messages to Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver on the next county budget.
The first one — “don’t raise my taxes” — was not a surprise.
Oliver said the other comment he heard most was about addressing county employee furlough days.
Furloughs, which mandate one day off per month without pay for all county employees, are one of the cost-cutting tools Hall officials have used when faced with tough budget decisions in the years since the economic downturn.
They have been in place since October 2008.
Furloughs are estimated to be saving the county about $2.1 million in wages not paid, according to County Administrator Randy Knighton.
It’s also a 5 percent pay cut for employees, who often face the same workload with less time and compensation.
The furloughs also have been blamed for posing challenges in maintaining service levels and, combined with the elimination of employee retirement contribution, lowering morale among county employees.
When a proposed budget compiled by county staff was presented Tuesday for the coming fiscal year, it left the furloughs in place.
Despite what’s in that draft budget, some members of the commission say it’s a priority to at least bring the number of days down, even if eliminating the furloughs altogether isn’t possible.
“There is a want from all the commissioners to see if we can reduce furlough days,” Commissioner Ashley Bell said.
Oliver goes even further.
“I’m totally committed to eliminating nine furlough days,” Oliver said. “I think we can do this within the budget.”
Oliver, who along with commissioners Bell and Billy Powell are up for re-election this year, has proposed reducing furlough days to three and the county’s contribution to employee retirement to between 2 and 4 percent.
While providing millions of dollars in savings to a county that has been forced to watch just about every penny, furloughs have had a significant impact on many aspects of county government, especially in emergency services and the court system.
For the courts, it has meant shifting cases and trials around the mandatory day off. Some have complained furloughs give prosecutors and public defenders less time to prepare cases.
For the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, which can’t close shop for the day, furloughs mean juggling deputies’ shifts to ensure everyone takes the monthly day off without compromising public safety.
According to a sheriff’s office statement, furloughs leave fewer patrol officers in the field, which can lead to slower response times and less opportunity for active patrol.
“I think if we can reduce our furlough days, it can increase efficiency with public safety and judicial administration,” Bell said.
The furloughs have had effects across the entire county, some say.
“It’s been very costly to Hall County,” said Dick Mecum, who, along with former Commissioner Steve Gailey, plans to run against Oliver for the chairman seat. Qualifying for the July 31 primary is set for May 23-25.
Mecum describes a flight of many experienced Hall County employees to other jobs because of furloughs and benefit cuts.
“It has put all of the county employees in a hardship situation and hurt morale,” he said. “You’ve got people with experience, and they’re leaving and taking their experience with them.”
That loss of institutional knowledge, Mecum said, means an inevitable reduction in the “quality of service that people expect.”
Mecum says past budget mismanagement put the county in a place where furloughs were necessary. At a time when the government should have been reducing staff and the budget through attrition, he said, it continued to maintain or even grow the size of the government.
When asked how county employees were responding to the prospect of another year of furloughs, Knighton offered this: “The staff at large continues to work very hard for the citizens of this county. We’d all obviously like to see a reduction in furloughs and retirement contributions to come back.”
Through cost-cutting measures, Knighton said employees are still working toward that end.
But if furloughs are going to be reduced this year, it will have to come from an agreement within the commission.
With a proposal to reduce nine furlough days and reintroduce a small retirement contribution, Oliver estimates the county would have to make up somewhere between $2 million to $3 million.
That has to be made up either through additional revenue or through cuts.
And while no commissioner is speaking out against reducing furloughs, the success of Oliver’s proposal will depend on the details.
“It’s just a matter of how we’re going to pay for it,” Powell said. “I’d love to see a plan other than raising taxes.”
For his part, Oliver said he has a plan for implementing furlough reduction and employee contribution that he will introduce to the commission soon. Oliver believes his plan won’t include a tax increase or property value roll-up, which likely would meet opposition from other commissioners.
Unlike last year, when the county faced an $11.5 million budget gap, commissioners are expressing optimism this time around. Commissioner Scott Gibbs said there is broad support of some sort of furlough reduction and is confident they can at least be halved.
“We are dealing with a better financial situation than we were last year,” Bell said. “This isn’t a budget of parks or no parks. It’s a budget of keeping or eliminating furlough days. And that’s a much better situation.”