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Hall County plans to move probation in-house
Renovating county office will save money in long run, officials say
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If all goes as planned, Hall County will have an in-house misdemeanor probation office in a newly renovated building by March.

The soon-to-be established misdemeanor probation office, as well as the county's Treatment Services, will move into a county-owned building on Browns Bridge Road formerly occupied by Avita.

The county runs five treatment courts including drug, DUI, mental health, family treatment and parental accountability. All of those are currently housed in a rented building on Main Street in Gainesville.

By moving into the county-owned building, the county will save $96,000 in rent it pays to use the Main Street facility, officials said.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners began an initiative in June to move any departments from rented facilities to county-owned buildings.

"They wanted to get everybody that is paying rent into government buildings and this one was available for us," Court Administrator Reggie Forrester said.

"We think this is the right thing to do and we think the timing is right to do it."

Commissioners approved the building renovations and the establishment of the in-house probation services at last Thursday's commission meeting.

"I think that is one of the more progressive things I've seen the court system and the county do because it allows the county to be in charge of probation," Commission Chairman Tom Oliver said.

Like many other counties in the state, Hall County's probation services are currently handled by a contractor.

Those services will now be handled by the county through a court department.

Oliver said the county will now be able to focus more on helping probationers.

"I'm not saying private probation hasn't been good, but sometimes they tend to worry more about the money than they do the participants," he said. "I think it's a great opportunity for the county to move that direction."

But the Browns Bridge Road building required renovations. Oliver said occupants could begin moving into the building within the next three months and renovations would be concurrent.

The initial costs to bring the building up-to-date will be covered by Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds in the amount of $427,486, according to a feasibility study.

Total costs to establish the in-house probation office will require a $77,623 startup cost, which will come out of the county's general fund. Those costs include nearly $620,000 in personnel expenses, according to the study.

However, the study projects an annual revenue of $790,000, meaning a net income of more than $12,000. In subsequent years, the county projects the net income to be more than $68,000 and the costs to operate the office would come from program revenues.

"It will save the county money in the long run. It will enhance our services," Forrester said.

Revenues will be generated through probation fees that probationers are required to pay.

Those include electronic monitoring for a fee between $8 and $15, as well as alcohol and drug tests for a fee between $15 and $30.

Drug testing will be conducted at a lab within the renovated building, allowing probation officers to administer tests randomly. Those tests can be conducted at a cost of approximately $5 per unit, according to the feasibility study.

"Currently, drug testing is done, basically, whenever a probationer reports once a month and there's no randomness to it," Forrester said.

Forrester said an in-house probation office would allow for a more efficient process.

"One of the major reasons we want to bring it in-house is because we want our probation officers, as a certified government agency, to have arrest powers," Forrester said.

Therefore, if a probationer appears under the influence, probation officers would have probable cause to make an arrest.

Currently, contracted probation officers are required to obtain an arrest warrant before any arrest can be made.

"There's just a lot of things that will be positive by bringing it in-house," Forrester said.

Northeastern Circuit Superior Court Judge Jason Deal presides over the Hall County Drug Court and the Dawson County Treatment Court. He said moving Treatment Services to a new facility provides an opportunity to better assist drug offenders.

"I think it will improve our operations just from the standpoint of there's a little bit more room and we'll be able to have all the services in one location," he said.

Officials estimate Treatment Services saves the county $3 million to $4 million annually by keeping prisoners out of the jail.

Deal said expanding the Treatment Services could save the county even more.

"With the extra room comes the ability to expand and while we don't have any plans to do that right this second. ... I would love to have the opportunity to expand," he said.