By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Hall County workers may get pay hikes next year
Employee salaries a priority as county officials move toward budget proposal
Placeholder Image

Hall County budget forums

What: Discussion of requests for the fiscal year 2016 budget

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 18-19

Where: Commission meeting room, second floor of Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville

Though there appears to be little appetite for new programs or hiring, Hall County officials are coming to a consensus on giving employees a cost of living adjustment, merit increase or some other pay hike in the next budget.

“I’d like to treat our employees fairly so that they can turn around and service the public,” said Commissioner Billy Powell.

The county’s 2016 fiscal year budget must be approved by July 1. The Board of Commissioners will hold meetings with department heads and administration over the next two weeks to begin finalizing an initial proposal.

In recent interviews with The Times, commissioners said employee pay needs addressing, but it remains to be determined how much of an increase in compensation will be made.

“I feel like everybody had to sacrifice when we were in hard times,” Commissioner Kathy Cooper said. “If it’s possible to do, I will go along with that.”

Commissioner Jeff Stowe said that while he has not yet seen all the numbers, he is hearing that spending requests are around $105 million, while revenues are projected at just $90 to $91 million.

These figures are preliminary until the final tax digest comes in and could be adjusted up or down, but it’s a starting point for negotiations.

There are positive signs that the local economy is improving, with new commercial and residential construction emerging in Gainesville and South Hall in the first months of 2015. But the benefit to local governments likely won’t be seen for another year or two.

While workers and families felt the budget crunch of the economic recession as early as 2008 and 2009, the impact on local and state government didn’t fully hit until 2010 and 2011 in many communities nationwide.

For example, Hall County’s biggest budget deficit, about $11 million, came in 2011.

“Governments are slow to react,” Stowe said. “We probably reacted a little too slow” in the past.

Stowe said property tax revenues tend to lag behind economic trend lines, and he doesn’t want to get ahead of the curve with any major new spending this year.

“I don’t see us expanding many programs or adding any personnel,” he added.

Commissioner Scott Gibbs said a few positions might be added, such as a building maintenance inspector. But he, too, doesn’t foresee expansive hiring in the works.

“Maybe I see it differently, but I don’t see that we’re lacking in a lot of things,” he said, but added that employee pay increases are his biggest priority.

While adding employees might not be in the works, it isn’t stopping some department heads from asking anyway.

For example, Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh asked for a Spanish-language advocate to join his office earlier this year.

And Tax Commissioner Darla Eden has proposed reopening the South Hall tag office, shuttered as a result of budget cuts in 2011, which would require additional personnel.

There is one major initiative, however, likely to increase personnel costs in the next budget. Plans are in the works to reopen the courthouse annex in downtown Gainesville later this year to serve probate and juvenile cases.

Hall Sheriff Gerald Couch has said he needs at least eight deputies to maintain safety, and security alone accounts for about $450,000 in expenses when personnel costs and equipment are added up.

One of the biggest unknown costs that will hit next year’s budget is a coming increase in gasoline taxes.

Georgia lawmakers approved a transportation funding plan in April that will raise an estimated $900 million, with most of that money coming from a new 26-cents-per-gallon excise tax on gasoline.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said last month that the average price of gas will go up 6 cents a gallon beginning July 1. That increase will result in higher fuel costs for government vehicles.

“It will cost us some additional money,” Gibbs said, perhaps as much $150,000 to $200,000 annually.

Powell said county officials will have to factor these increased costs into the budget.

“We buy a lot of fuel,” he added.

Moreover, it is unclear how state transportation funding might trickle down to the county. Commission Chairman Richard Mecum said the general fund may be needed to support immediate road work.

The county manages about 1,100 miles of road.

“The repairs are what concern me right now,” Mecum said.

County officials said the budget process was made easier when voters approved a new five-year round of special purpose local option sales tax in March to fund infrastructure projects, such as road improvements and building renovations.

“It’s huge,” Powell said, adding that more than half a billion dollars has been spent on capital projects out of SPLOST revenues in the last 30 years.

The projected revenue for SPLOST VII is $158 million. Without this infusion of money, officials said an increase in the property tax rate likely would have been needed.

But some property owners will be paying more in taxes this year, even while commissioners said they intend to roll back the tax rate to remain revenue-neutral.

For example, of more than 4,200 commercial and industrial properties inspected, about 60 percent will see a significant rise in value this year, with an average net increase of 27 percent, according to Hall County Chief Tax Assessor Steve Watson.

“I felt a little bit insecure that there wouldn’t be some (future) readjustments on these commercial properties,” Cooper said, acknowledging that some commercial property owners will see “enormous” increases in their tax bills while others get a break.

Cooper said she expects many appeals, and this lengthy process means actual county revenues, right down to the penny, will not be determined until after the budget is approved in June.

Commissioners said the county currently benefits from a strong reserve fund balance, somewhere in the neighborhood of $22 million, which can help offset any future losses in revenue while fortifying against emergency situations.

Officials said they don’t want to have to dip too heavily into reserve funds to balance the 2016 budget.

“Everybody feels good with a good bank account,” Powell said.