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Hall County faces hard calls on budget
Drastic cuts, tax hike proposed to close $11.5M hole
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The Hall County Board of Commissioners now has three choices to consider for the 2012 fiscal year: drastically cut expenses, raises taxes or fall somewhere in the middle.

The county must close an $11.5 million gap for the budget year that starts July 1, according to a draft of the proposed general fund budget obtained by The Times.

“We could see a little bit of everything,” said Jeremy Perry, the county’s budget officer. “That could be service cuts, a tax roll up, a tax increase or a cut in benefits. The commissioners will have to choose what they want, and we’ve already asked certain departments to give us numbers for service cuts.”

Budget documents will go up on the county’s website Thursday. Commissioners will hold their first public hearing June 9.

If commissioners proceed without a roll up or tax increase, they will adopt the budget June 23. If they call for a tax increase, finance officials will hold additional public hearings and likely hold a special called meeting to approve the budget June 30.

The two-page budget document accounts for each department’s expenses in the county’s general fund.

“It includes the amounts we’re proposing, and we want the residents to voice their opinions,” Perry said.

On Thursday night, Chairman Tom Oliver proposed a total 1.41 mill increase, with a 0.6 mill roll up to account for the loss in property values and an additional 0.81 mill increase. The current millage rate is 7.77.

One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 in assessed value. The county assesses on 40 percent of the total value. For his $180,000 home, that would mean an increase of $101, Oliver said.

“As a resident of Hall County, I cannot ask county employees, firefighters, EMTs and deputies to protect my family if I am not willing to protect their families,” Oliver said. “This tax increase is essential if we are to retain our experienced staff and keep this county running quality, efficient services.”

The shortfall comes from a projected 11 percent drop in property tax values, a drop in sales taxes and reduced fees in state and superior courts.

The increase would bring in $8 million, and $3.5 million in spending cuts would need to be made.

“Between now and June 30, it’s up to the commissioners to determine what expenses need to be cut,” said Nikki Young, the county’s public information officer. “Right now there are a lot of options, and the commissioners will rely on public comments and their own judgement to make the decision.”

Without a tax increase, employees face continued furloughs and unpaid holidays that constitute an 8 percent salary decrease, lost retirement contribution by the county and some layoffs.

By department, the job cuts include three planning positions, five building inspections jobs, seven spots in the Correctional Institute and 22 public works department positions.

“It results in slower service, with staff taking longer to respond to complaints such as potholes,” Young said. “Some new building inspections would be done on the second day rather than the first day.”

In addition, the proposed budget eliminates funding for the AgriCenter and a majority of the Parks and Leisure fund. The department would only maintain school fields and the Allen Creek Soccer Complex.

The cuts would reduce operations at four of the six libraries, and the county would lose two of its 16 ambulances. The sheriff’s office and courts would give up a handful of positions as well.

“Hall County was hit harder than most by the recession,” Young said Friday. “We were one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, and the county government built up its infrastructure like roads, parks and libraries on revenue brought in by that growth.”

When the growth came to a halt, the revenue to support that infrastructure and population stopped as well. Property values dropped 21 percent and sales tax revenue fell 25 percent since 2008.

Impact fees charged on new developments, which brought in more than $2 million for capital improvements in 2008, have practically disappeared, she said.

“According to CNBC, Gainesville is No. 1 on a national list of America’s biggest double-dip real estate markets,” Young said. “After the initial drop in property values due to the recession, we had a second dip of 18.8 percent in 2010. Those are numbers you just don’t bounce back from easily.”

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