The latest proposal for Hall County’s fiscal 2013 budget does not include a property tax increase.
But that doesn’t mean the county hasn’t sought ways to get additional revenue.
Faced with falling revenues in recent years because of the decline in the tax digest, Hall County — like many other governments — has looked to increase fees for services in lieu of hiking taxes.
A proposed budget projects Hall County to collect nearly $2 million more in the next fiscal year, which begins in July, than it did in fiscal 2012.
Just this year, the Board of Commissioners has raised fees for ambulance service, building inspections, zoning services and is considering increasing bus fares for Red Rabbit transportation services.
Those who support those fee increases say they help cover the cost of services provided. However, those fees also draw criticism.
Theresa Webb, a Gainesville resident and Hall County Republican Party participant, said local governments don’t do enough to cut budgets.
“Most of these things that they’re doing is simply because of the fact that they’re refusing to cut where they need to be,” she said. “Their first instinct is to increase ... roll-up, tax increase or fee increase.”
To be fair, Hall County’s budget has shrunk from $97.9 million in 2009 to $85.6 million in the current fiscal year. The 2013 proposed budget is $89.2 million.
But critics say the cuts haven’t been enough.
“Hall County government’s financial problems are not a result of the need for more taxes or fees,” said Richard Mecum, a candidate for chairman of the commission. “Hall County government has financial problems that stem from budgeting and financial mismanagement and poor or no planning.”
Mecum is running against incumbent Tom Oliver and former Commissioner Steve Gailey.
So what is the difference between a tax and fee?
Taxes, which include property and sales taxes, typically are levied on nearly all residents.
A fee is charged to individuals or groups for a particular service, which can include participation in a sports league, using the county landfill or a bill that arrives after a paramedic checks out an injury.
Georgia code states that local governments can’t use many fees to raise revenue for general purposes. In other words, those fees can’t be designed to outpace the cost of the service to fund other government needs.
Hall County Chairman Tom Oliver said commissioners have been trying to bring fees in line with the cost of services. That shift puts more costs on individuals.
“If you don’t do that, you’re letting (all) taxpayers pay the difference,” he said.
Costs to provide a service that aren’t collected by fees are probably going to come out of the general fund, funded by everyone’s tax dollars.
In justifying fee recent fee increases for the building inspections department, Commissioner Scott Gibbs asked why his parents, both Hall County residents, should “subsidize” a service that profitable businesses use.
Increased fees are not unique to Hall County. Gainesville has increased water and sewer rates, participation fees for Parks and Recreation activities and, like Hall County, has adjusted building inspection fees.
A survey by the National League of Cities found that 41 percent of city finance officers reported their cities had increased their fees and 23 percent added more fee charges to city services in 2011.
The organization reports those fee increases usually are connected to budget cuts and hiring freezes.
Only 20 percent of cities increased their property taxes in 2011.
While a fee increase may be easier to pass than a tax increase, some say there is little difference between the two.
“A fee is a tax by another name,” Mecum told The Times.
Hall Commissioner Ashley Bell, after delivering lone vote against raising Hall County building inspection fees in January, said the increase is the same as a tax increase on developers trying to build in Hall County.
“At the end of the day, a new fee or a tax is a bad thing in this economy,” Bell said.
Bell has voted to increase ambulance service fees and has said he thinks Red Rabbit should raise its fares.
Frank Norton Jr., president of the Norton Agency real estate firm, is a frequent critic of excessive fees and government regulation and their effect on business.
“I don’t think it slows growth,” he says. “I think it irritates growth.”
Norton doesn’t deny there are times when governments should raise fees to cover services such as building inspections, but says increases need to remain in line with the costs of operating the service and remain competitive with neighboring community agencies.
“But when governments are short on money, they need to tighten their belt rather than put the burden on the average citizen,” he said.