Hall County officials proposed a $91.978 million general fund budget for the 2015 fiscal year Tuesday night at an open house, which includes the use of $5.6 million in reserve funds to balance the budget.
But with department spending requests exceeding the proposed budget by more than $6 million, county officials will have to cut line items to close the shortfall.
“There are challenges as it pertains to the budget process,” Hall County Administrator Randy Knighton said. “We’ve still got a ways to go.”
County officials are likely to approve a rollback of the millage rate to 6.008 from 6.25 after the tax digest, or taxable property, grew 6.58 percent over the last year. Not doing so would amount to a tax increase.
One of the biggest contributors to the growth in the tax digest involves a reassessment of lakefront property values this year. About 90 percent of these properties saw increases in their assessed value over the last year.
Several owners of lakefront homes attended the open house Tuesday and said they felt the county was trying to balance the budget on their backs.
Terry Kuehn, one such resident, said officials were trying to do too much in one budget cycle.
Richard George, who owns a lakefront home in West Hall, said he felt taken advantage of by the reassessments, and he promised to appeal.
“Somebody’s got to tighten their belt,” he said, pointing the finger at county officials.
Kuehn questioned the need to replace so many patrol cars for the sheriff’s office.
“It’s a little ridiculous,” he said.
Sheriff Gerald Couch has proposed acquiring 20 new patrol vehicles, but county officials have proposed cutting that number to 15 for a savings of about $160,000.
“I’d like to see him get all 20 of them,” said Ken Cochran, who narrowly lost to Kathy Cooper in last week’s
Republican primary for the District 1 Board of Commissioners seat.
Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell also won’t get everything he desires.
Kimbrell said his request for a new fire truck, for example, is not likely to be approved. He said that expense could be paid for with SPLOST money if voters approve a new five-year round of the tax this fall.
In all, public safety spending will increase 5.43 percent under the proposed budget, accounting for about 46 percent of the general fund pie.
The fire services fund, supported by an ad valorem tax rather than the general fund, will increase 3.28 percent.
Cochran, like several other attendees, said he wanted to look more closely at Tax Commissioner Darla Eden’s budget to see exactly what funding priorities county officials had agreed to.
Eden caused a bit of a stir with her proposed budget, but county officials seem little willing to fulfill her requests.
For example, Eden is not likely to get the pay raise she asked for, nor is she likely to get the personnel and operating expenses needed to reopen a satellite office in South Hall that was closed in recent years due to budget cuts.
But given a 30 percent increase in workload as a result of implementing the new title ad valorem tax, Eden said she will continue to push for reopening the office in the 2015 fiscal year.
Doug Aiken, a regular attendee at commission meetings, said he was supportive of many aspects of the budget, “as long as (commissioners) don’t raise taxes.”
But Aiken did disagree with the use of $5.6 million in reserve funds.
“That’s too much,” he said, adding he would tap the fund balance only to pay for sheriff’s vehicles.
Aiken said he is concerned that depleting the reserve fund could hurt the county’s ability to pay for unforeseen expenses resulting from, say, a natural disaster. Without enough in reserves, Aiken said the county might be forced to borrow money to pay for washed-out roads and bridges, for example.
In all, the proposed budget represents a 5.67 percent increase over the current fiscal year’s budget.
Public works has the largest percentage increase in funding of major departments while public health and welfare will see the lowest percentage increase.
Of general government departments, the elections division will see the biggest percentage increase in funding while only the tax assessor’s office will see a decrease.
The budget does not include any furlough days for county employees and retains a 4 percent retirement contribution.
In recent years, the open house forum has not seen a high turnout of residents. Indeed, many times only Aiken has been present.
But about a dozen residents showed up this year, including Doug Forrester, who said he felt a sense of obligation to attend the budget forum.
“I agree citizens need to be more involved,” he added.
County officials are hoping turnout increases even more when formal budget hearings are held in June.
The Board of Commissioners must approve a budget prior to the start of the 2015 fiscal year, July 1.