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Hall County budget gets public airing
Residents sharply divided on proposed tax hike
Kathy Amos addresses the Hall County Board of Commissioners Tuesday evening in the Georgia Mountains Center arena during a Hall County budget public hearing.

Hall County Board of Commissioners may have had some trouble finding consensus among taxpayers attending a public hearing Tuesday night on a proposed tax increase to pay for next fiscal year's budget.

Area residents were polarized on the touchy issue but, for the most part, kept emotions in check as they expressed a wide range of opinions during the public hearing in the Georgia Mountains Center arena.

Some 150 people — less than expected — attended the first of three hearings on the tax increase, with final hearings set for noon and 6 p.m. June 30, the last day of the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

The commission's adoption of the 2011-2012 budget, which takes effect July 1, is set that same day.

"The vote will be based on any number of proposals," Commission Chairman Tom Oliver said.

Basically, the county is looking at an $11.5 million shortfall in revenues and is either considering lowering expenses to meet that amount — meaning severe cuts in many areas — or using property tax increases and cuts to ease the blow on services, staffing and employee benefits.

"If we can't get taxes in Hall County under control, how in the world are we ever going to expect Georgia or the federal people to do that?" said one of Tuesday night's speakers, Susan Collins.

"There are other answers than just increase the taxes. I would donate my retirement time to show you where you can do it. ... I know you can do it, if you don't just cave in now."

Ashley Tumlin cried as she spoke to commissioners in favor of a tax increase.

"I'm very aware that some of you commissioners are still against it," she said. "However, I hope and pray you finally listen to the outcry of this county. ... Raise the taxes. We'll pay it.

"And for those of you who can't (pay the average monthly tax increase of) $11 and some change to save our parks ... to save our policemen's jobs, our (Emergency Medical Services), that's sad."

The first version of the county's budget was introduced June 2 and contained no hike in the tax rate and showed total revenues of nearly $84.6 million. With the county dipping into its reserves by $1.4 million, that amount was bumped to nearly $86 million.

County officials used $86 million to forge a spending plan that eliminated funding for two of 16 ambulances, shuttered as many as 16 parks and left the county's library board with a decision to close as many as four library branches.

They released a $92.8 million budget Friday night that mixes cuts and tax increases but restores employee retirement benefits as well as much of the previously cut funding for the county's parks and emergency services.

Also, more jobs would be spared, including those of first responders.

Overall, the new spending plan adds $8 million in property tax revenue. The tax rate hike would vary depending on where residents live.

For those living outside the cities, the overall rate would jump to 9.45 mills from 7.76; inside a city other than Gainesville, 11.14 mills from 8.96; and inside Gainesville, 7.66 mills from 6.25.

One mill is equal to $1 for each $1,000 in assessed value, with property assessed at 40 percent in the county.

The general fund tax is the same for all residents, jumping to 7.66 mills from 6.25. Part of the rate increase, 0.39 mills, is considered a "roll up," or a tax increase that helps offset average losses in county property values.

Except for general comments by Oliver, commissioners didn't speak during Tuesday night's hearing.

At an earlier work session, however, Commissioners Ashley Bell and Billy Powell offered a few budget-related suggestions.

Powell said he believed the commission should consider eliminating $624,000 in funding for Hall Area Transit's Red Rabbit bus service and the Gainesville-Hall Community Service Center.

"If we're going to look at cutting parks and public works, then, I think, the Red Rabbit (cut) ... is definitely something we need to take a look at," he said after the public hearing.

Bell said he believes the commission should consider a referendum allowing voters to decide whether to have a tax rate dedicated just for parks, as Gainesville does.

The county's general fund now pays for parks and recreation services.

"That way, when tough times come along, like this, it's not on the chopping block," he said. "I think that if people really feel that strongly about it in Hall County, then that's something they need to approve."

Commissioners and county officials also took some shots during the public hearing.

Gainesville Realtor Jack Waldrip blamed Oliver personally for failing in fiscal management.

"You've been elected to lead Hall County," taking a job that included keeping "an eye on this (budget) and to manage this thing and not get us in a crisis situation," he said.

"Instead, you've brought us to an $11.5 million deficit — a disaster. Now you're asking the taxpayers of Hall County to bail you out, and if they don't bail you out, you're asking the employees to lose their jobs or to cut those salaries.

"... In the business world, you would be fired."

Clermont Mayor James Nix said he formerly worked in a business of forecasting, "particularly when we were working to put out a budget for the federal level."

"Gentlemen, I believe you are working off some unrealistic assumptions here," he said, referring to property values down 21 percent. "I don't know where that comes from."

Two-third of Hall County residents haven't received lower property assessments from the county, he said.

"That's going to push up the tax on many of us," Nix said.