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Hall commissioners ponder budget, tax options
Board members weigh rolling back rate or keeping it to raise revenue
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Hall County budget public hearings

Where: Hall County Government Center commission meeting room, 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville

When: 6 p.m. Thursday; 3 p.m. June 23; 6 p.m. June 26

When Hall County officials announced last week they were considering a tax increase to balance the 2015 fiscal year budget, it raised more questions than answers.

Because of growth in the tax digest, or taxable property, primarily due to reassessments of lakefront homes, the county would have to roll back the tax rate to 5.98 mills to remain revenue neutral in the next fiscal year.

But with the prospect of generating an additional $1.4 million, a proposal is now on the table to keep the rate in place at 6.25, which amounts to a tax increase.

Less than two weeks ago, county officials held an open house for the public to get its first look at the 2015 budget. At that time, officials were proposing to roll back the tax rate to 6.008 mills, and when coupled with the use of reserve funds, would place the budget at about $92 million.

One mill equals $1 for each $1,000 in assessed property value.

The shifting tides on the budget reveal the many sticking points that remain in the final weeks of debate over the spending plan. A budget must be adopted before the end of the month.

Some county commissioners have expressed tentative support for the tax increase, identifying a few areas where the additional revenues might be directed.

“I think I can get on board with it,” Commissioner Billy Powell said.

Capital expenses, such as purchasing new ambulances and cost-of-living or salary increases for workers, were among the items Powell said he would support with the additional revenue. County employees have gone without such increases since the 2009 fiscal year, though a one-time bonus was given this fiscal year while furloughs were scrapped and retirement contributions were reinstated.

Other commissioners also said these were important considerations in ongoing budget talks, and the tax increase might be necessary to provide for them.

“It potentially leaves our options open on the budget,” Commissioner Jeff Stowe said. “In my opinion, I don’t see it as a tax increase when you keep your millage rate exactly the same.”

Most commissioners have expressed little interest in the proposal to use $5.6 million in reserve funds to balance the budget, with a consensus starting to form about cutting that amount in half.

“What continues to bother me is the use of reserves,” Commissioner Scott Gibbs said. “If we leave the millage rate where it is today, I’m only having to use $2.5 million of reserves.”

But driving that figure down might require county departments to cut their operational expenses even further, Powell said.

The demands on the county budget don’t end there. Chairman Richard Mecum said he worried about the costs of unfunded state mandates.

“This is getting deeper as we go here,” he said. “We don’t know exactly what the costs are going to be.”

County officials are also considering adding a third judge to the juvenile court system.

County Administrator Randy Knighton said adding this position, plus associated personnel, would cost between $310,000 and $320,000.

But Commissioner Craig Lutz said he doesn’t believe the new judge is warranted despite pleas from the court.

“To some extent, there is an efficiency issue they are dealing with,” he said, adding complaints about increased workload aren’t borne out in the figures he’s seeing.

Lutz has remained adamant in his opposition to the proposal to leave the tax rate the same.

“Unfortunately, that might make me be the bad guy in all this,” Lutz said. “But that’s what I was hired to do by the people. I feel like, to some extent, I’m the lone guy out there saying there’s a better way of doing this.”

The proposed tax increase would largely fall on the backs of lakefront homeowners after reassessments of property values this year. About 90 percent of these properties were hit by increases, with an average increase in value of about 39 percent.

These property owners are sure to fight the proposal to keep the tax rate the same.

Chief Assessor Steve Watson has said he expects to receive double the amount of appeals this year. About 2,700 were filed last year.

Mecum, who owns a lakefront home, defended the reassessments, saying they were long overdue and these property owners had been given tax breaks for years.

“The lake property owners, in effect, have not been paying their fair share of taxes in Hall County,” he said. “And now it’s caught up.”

Appeals of the reassessments can be made until the end of the month.

And this lengthy process complicates the budget negotiations further because the exact amount of property tax revenue won’t be known until after a budget is adopted.

Commissioners are already preparing themselves for the heat they may receive at the first public hearing on the budget Thursday, but they confess to not knowing exactly what to expect.

“You just never know,” Powell said. “Every year is different. It runs the gamut.”