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Hall officials brace for tough cuts
Budget hearings end with reality of $8.8 million gap to close for 2012
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As Hall County officials begin to crunch the numbers, they know services must be cut for the next budget year, which starts July 1.

After a weeklong series of budget hearings, county finance staff now face the hard part: drafting an administration recommendation.

"Now we sit back and crunch numbers and have internal meetings," said Lisa Johnsa, interim finance director. "It's tough because everyone is struggling, including the agencies and nonprofits, and I can't say I heard anything that's not worthwhile."

More than 70 Hall County departments and agencies explained their revenues and expenditures this week, all trying to maintain the status quo. Some directors presented capital requests to replace their decades-old vehicles or critically outdated software, but most know the funds likely won't stretch that far.

Based on declining tax digest values and increases in retirement and health care costs, the overall county budget is already looking at an $8.8 million gap for fiscal year 2012. The county's fiscal 2011 budget was $90.4 million.

"If you took the 2011 budget and replicated it for 2012, we're still down," Jock Connell, interim county administrator, repeated throughout the week before the departments presented. "This is a Hall County problem, and we want to hear what every department and agency has to say. It's going to take the whole government to attack this problem."

Hall County staff will use the hearings to create a final draft of the budget, which will be available to the public on May 24.

Finance officials also will hold two or three public hearings before commissioners vote on the budget in June.

County staff approached the budget hearings with an open mind and tried to think of unique ways to trim costs. Linda Pryor, human resources director, asked about travel and training budget items while Connell and Johnsa considered their experiences in Gwinnett County.

"The nature of the budgets is the same, and the primary sources of government revenue are the same. That's not the challenge," Johnsa said as budget talks wrapped up Friday. "All counties are facing deficits and a declining tax base. That's not unique to Hall County."

Most of all, departments and agencies are trying to maintain staff levels while taking on a higher demand for services.

"I can hire attorneys at a low starting salary because of the job market right now, but at some point I'll have to come back to get those adjusted," said Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard. "They're starting at a rate that I was making in 1996. I try to make up for it in creativity, and my lawyers get a great experience, but those numbers will have to change eventually."

For commissioners, this means eliminating notions of how services have been administered in the past.

"There was a time when we could do a lot of stuff, but now we need to be really clear about the impacts of everything we do," Commissioner Craig Lutz said.

"We're going to have to think outside of the box to some extent."


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