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Hall officials dig into 2017 budget
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The final weeks of May are always anxious days for Hall County officials as they prepare for the home stretch of the annual budget process.

“We got a long way to go,” Commissioner Scott Gibbs said. “The wish list is here and the reality is there.”

Early revenue projections place the 2017 fiscal year spending plan somewhere in the neighborhood of $94 million, but Commission Chairman Richard Mecum said the exact tax digest numbers, which account for both new growth and the reassessment of property values on homes and businesses, are still being calculated.

Officials must approve the general fund budget before July 1, but fluctuations in revenue estimates are common this time of year.

“Hammering out,” “sifting through” and “nailing down” are common phrases heard among officials as they finalize the budget and prepare for public hearings in June.

Mecum said administration has worked with the finance managers and department heads to review budget requests, project priorities for the coming year and consider other fiscal concerns.

A forum for elected officials to present their budget requests is planned in the coming week or two.

“Some are very optimistic, some are not so,” Mecum said about the budget process.

Big questions that need answering, for example, include whether officials will advertise a potential tax increase to consider all funding options; whether the reserve fund will be tapped to balance the budget; and whether employees can expect salary raises or bonuses.

Commissioners voted 3-2 last June to approve the current year’s $93.6 million general fund budget with no tax increase, marking a 3.68 percent increase over the 2015 fiscal year’s adopted budget of $90.2 million.

By that slim vote margin, officials opted to roll back the property tax rate to 5.735 mills to remain revenue neutral following the reassessment of values on commercial, industrial and residential properties.

At that rate, the county levied about $38 million in property taxes, but the rollback from 5.989 mills amounted to a $1.6 million revenue loss.

Without that additional revenue, officials OK’d budgeting about $3.6 million in reserves, rather than just about $2 million, to balance the spending plan.

Tapping reserves, or the fund balance, is a delicate debate.

The fund currently stands at about $23 million, a record level for the county, but officials are hesitant to reap its benefits in case an emergency, such as major storm damage, occurs.

“Our fund balance is right where it should be,” Gibbs said, adding that he doesn’t want to tap more than $1 million in reserves this year.

Commissioner Jeff Stowe said the county has been able to continue building its reserves through conservative revenue and spending projections, and he expects that principle to hold this year.

“I don’t think we’re going to add much” from the fund balance, he added.

Stowe said he expects a full roll back of the property tax rate again this year, particularly since additional funding resulting from property value reassessments would only amount to $200,000.

Taking the political hit of advertising a potential tax increase, as required by state law, isn’t warranted in that case, he added.

Though Gibbs does not expect major new spending projects, employee compensation is a major priority. But new hiring is not.

“I want to take care of the people I got,” Gibbs said. “I don’t want to add a bunch of new people.”

The current budget included funding for 24 new full-time positions and $1.4 million for employee raises when approved.

Stowe said expanding pay raises for public safety personnel, including firefighters, law enforcement and emergency 911 responders, to be on par with neighboring counties and governments is crucial so that Hall remains competitive in attracting the best and most qualified workers.

“That’s something we’ll need to take a look at,” he added.

Gibbs said new funding for road and building maintenance could be approved, although the county budget benefits this year from a new round of special purpose local option sales tax revenues, which support capital projects.

Gibbs said he expects budgets for major departments, such as the Sheriff’s Office and courts, to remain relatively flat year over year.

But that’s no guarantee.

“There’s a couple of elected officials who feel like they’re entitled to stuff,” Gibbs said.

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