The Hall County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 on Thursday night to approve a $93.6 million general fund budget for the 2016 fiscal year with no tax increase.
That’s a 3.68 percent increase over the current year’s adopted budget of $90.2 million.
Commissioners Billy Powell, Scott Gibbs and Jeff Stowe voted in favor of rolling back the tax rate to 5.735 to remain revenue neutral following the reassessment on values of commercial, industrial and residential properties this year. At that rate, the county will levy about $38.1 million in property taxes.
Of more than 4,200 commercial and industrial properties inspected this year, about 60 percent will see a rise in value, according to Chief Tax Appraiser Steve Watson.
Hall County properties are assessed at 40 percent of their value for tax purposes. One mill equals $1 of tax on every $1,000 of taxable value.
Commissioner Kathy Cooper and Chairman Richard Mecum supported keeping the property tax rate in place at 5.989, which amounts to a tax increase under state law, and would have generated about $1.6 million in additional revenue.
Without the additional revenue, officials OK’d budgeting about $3.6 million in reserves, rather than just about $2 million, to balance the spending plan.
The budget includes funding to open the courthouse annex in downtown Gainesville, $1.4 million for employee raises and money to add 24 new full-time positions.
Residents in attendance at a public hearing on the budget Thursday roundly urged commissioners to roll back the tax rate.
Joanne Stone made her case pointedly with single statement.
“The valuation on the condos that we own in Gainesville went up 70 percent,” she said, “and I’m not going to stand for it.”
Bill Oberholtzer said he believed officials needed to reduce spending rather than raise taxes or tap reserves.
“I don’t think anybody has seriously looked at cutting back on services … seems to me it would be a pretty simple matter not to hire new people and not need to increase taxes,” he added.
And Doug Aiken said that because the county has more than $22 million in reserves currently, tapping that fund does not pose a financial threat.
“May not like some ingredients,” he added, referring to those who supported a tax increase, “but it’s not a debt, yet.”
While the county has routinely budgeted reserves to balance spending plans in recent years, very little has actually been used as revenues exceeded projections. And that proved to be the argument that swayed Powell to vote in favor of rolling back the tax rate, though with one caveat.
“I do think there are some things we can do in the future to improve things,” he added. “We’ve got a pretty good track record of rolling the millage rate back … I don’t think we’re always going to be able to do that.”
Commissioners Scott Gibbs and Jeff Stowe had made it known weeks ago that they would not support a tax increase.
“I do appreciate the citizens’ input,” Gibbs said Thursday. “I am thrilled to be able to support the rollback.”
But Mecum and Cooper said they thought it was irresponsible to balance the budget with the heavy use of reserves, which are typically pocketed and spent only in the event of emergencies or natural disasters, and also help boost the county’s bond ratings.
Mecum also objected to whether keeping the tax rate unchanged truly amounted to a tax increase, and had vehemently argued over the last week that continuing to lower the millage rate would hurt the county’s ability to provide services for residents and invest in employees.
“If you run … your home or your business the way the folks here want to run this county, you’re going to be bankrupt or you’re going to be out of business,” he said. “You can’t do it for very long. And that’s what I’m afraid of right now. That’s where we’re headed.”
After the public hearing, Cooper told The Times that she believed it was premature to dip deep into reserves to balance the budget while the economy is still coming back to life, adding that she’d rather be “safe than sorry.”
Hall County Republican Party Chairman Debra Pilgrim said she was concerned that the vote was tight.
“All commissioners were elected as Republicans, and one of the core principles is that taxes should be no higher than what is required to achieve the necessary ends of government,” she told The Times. “Three out of the five did what they were supposed to do. Three out of the five did what they ran under.”
But Pilgrim said the fight over taxes is likely to rear its head again in the future.
“We won this battle …” she added.