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Hall County cuts 32 jobs today before final budget
Commissioners vote to eliminate positions a week before new fiscal year begins
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More than 30 employees of the Hall County government will lose their jobs today.

The Hall County Commission voted Thursday night to lay off 32 people first thing this morning, rather than wait until the county's final budget is decided next week.

The positions, which would have been eliminated anyway on July 1 under the county's current budget proposal, will mostly be cut from the county's public works department.

But Commissioner Scott Gibbs moved Thursday to do away with the jobs a week early to help the county save money in the coming budget year.

The savings, according to Interim Finance Director Lisa Johnsa, will be $24,000, the total salary and benefits for the 32 workers today through July 1.

The employees laid off today will be paid two weeks' salary after they are notified that their jobs have been eliminated. They will also be eligible for unemployment compensation.

Laying off employees today means the county can pay the employees for unused vacation in the current fiscal year's budget, instead of having the expense in the coming year.

"It was inevitable," Gibbs said. "It was going to happen this week or next week ... I think the department heads were aware that the cuts were coming, so it's $24,000 — that's a savings."

Commissioners Ashley Bell and Craig Lutz supported the proposal.

But Chairman Tom Oliver and Commissioner Billy Powell said the savings weren't worth the impact to county employees.

"You're moving lives around very haphazardly," Oliver said of Gibbs' motion.

Powell, too, said the $24,000 was a "small price to pay" to help employees through the end of the month.

While the county saves $24,000, the employees who will receive notice today that their jobs have been eliminated will lose one week of pay they would have had if they were fired on July 1.

Both Gibbs and Bell said the decision was based on a need to cut excess spending where they can.

"I'm so very sorry that we are faced in the greatest — as far as I'm concerned, the greatest — economic crisis this country's ever seen," Gibbs said. "I don't think anybody on this commission had anything to do with it, but we've got to start reacting — to make cuts — to try to salvage our budget."

For the last month, county officials have been scrambling to find ways to patch an $11.5 million hole in the county's general fund.

Previous proposals have included closing most county parks, raising property taxes and eliminating funding for the county's transit system.

Commissioners have not completely agreed on all of the proposals, but all of the proposals have included layoffs, in one form or another.

The most recent budget proposal from Oliver included a tax increase of at least 1.41 mills for property owners and the elimination of 54 positions in the general government. Of those cut positions, 22 are vacant.

Another 25 employees in the county's library system, 21 of them part-time, will also lose their jobs at the end of July.

Bell's vote came with the consideration that the jobs would be cut anyway if Oliver's proposed budget is passed next week, he said.

"People want us to make tough decisions," Bell said. "Tonight was one of them. To not save that $24,000, I think, would not have sent the right message."

Bell said Thursday he is open to any idea that will save the county money or offset a tax increase.

He offered his own suggestion Thursday to waive the county's portion of penalties and interests for late property tax payments during the month of August as a way to encourage property owners to pay their delinquent taxes.

The county is owed more than $7 million in delinquent taxes. Bell thinks the offer of amnesty could bring in some $2 million in immediate tax payments. A majority of commissioners voted to have County Attorney Bill Blalock write a resolution to provide for the amnesty process.

The commission will vote on the resolution once Blalock creates it.

"Be careful on the precedent you set here," Oliver said. "... We're telling everybody 'don't pay your taxes now. You can wait until August, and you can get away with it free.'"

But Bell said the suggestion was an effort to get people to pay taxes immediately and pull together as much revenue as it could.

"This is a one-time (event), because we're in a once-in-a-lifetime financial crisis in this county," Bell said. "... Mr. Chairman, if you have any other ideas outside of raising taxes, I'm glad to entertain them."

But Bell was not in favor of cutting funding to the county's Community Service Center, as Powell proposed earlier this week. Bell said Powell's proposal would cost more than it could save.

Powell proposed cutting the county's $624,000 portion of funding to the center, which also serves as the umbrella agency for Meals on Wheels, Hall Area Transit and the county's senior center.

Both Hall County and Gainesville share the costs of the Community Service Center, but the federal and state government shoulders most of the burden of the center's $3.5 million budget.

On Thursday, Community Service Center Director Phillippa Lewis Moss told the commission a decision to cut the center's funding could leave the local governments on the line to pay some $2.6 million.

If the county defunded the center, Moss said, the commission would have to repay about $1.9 million to state and federal agencies that gave the center grants that were contingent upon matching funds from the local government.

The county would then have to pay unemployment and severance pay for 57 people, totaling $559,000.

About 60 percent of those costs would be the county's burden, Moss said.

The county would also have to spend another $155,000 working out a 90-day grace period with the Gainesville government to end the cost-sharing agreement the two governments have on the center, Moss said.

After hearing from Moss on Thursday, both Oliver and Bell said they were no longer considering cutting funds for the center. The other three commissioners weren't so sure, however.

"I think it's still on the table," Powell said.

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