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Hall officials expect long budget talks Thursday
$85.9 million being discussed
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The Hall County Commission may have to pull an all-nighter Thursday.

As the group prepares to vote on a spending plan that would all but eliminate funding for Parks and Leisure and threatens to shutter Hall's least-used libraries, Commission Chairman Tom Oliver says he will give residents as much time as they need to make their feelings known.

Citing what he called "such a critical budget," Oliver said at the commission's work session Monday he would eliminate a two-minute time limit on residents who wish to comment on the county's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

"You can say what you want to say if we're here all night," Oliver said.

Up for discussion Thursday is a spending plan that aims to triage a county government that has suffered significant losses in revenues from property tax, sales tax and other fees charged for development.

What is not on the agenda for Thursday is an alternative spending plan Oliver proposed late last month that would increase county residents' property taxes by 1.41 mills. That plan may never see the ink of an agenda. Most county commissioners say they are opposed to a tax increase, and some are even leery of a tax rate "roll-up," or an increase in property tax rates to offset losses from declining property values.

"When I ran a year ago, I said I could not support a tax increase, because I just don't think the folks in this county can endure paying more than what they're paying because businesses are hurting, mine included," said Commissioner Scott Gibbs. "I think what we have to do is get to the point where the county is doing what its obligations are and that's to provide the necessities that nobody else can provide."

But as the government faces an $11.5 million deficit, commissioners have few options for making the government's $85.9 million-ends meet.

Commissioner Ashley Bell, who represents the area of Hall County that includes Gainesville, said he would wait to hear from his constituents at Thursday's public hearing and at a separate community meeting Saturday before deciding how to do just that.

Bell's decision, he said, will reflect the values of the community.

"I think I owe all the different opinions my ability to listen to everybody fairly before I make my decision on behalf of the residents," Bell said. "...It's not about whether or not there should be a tax increase. There's options of a roll-up; there's options of a tax increase. We could further cut spending. We could privatize more of the departments."

The $85.9 million budget up for discussion Thursday seeks to bridge an $11.5 million gap between revenues and expenditures. The proposal does not include a tax increase or a roll-up, and promises to change the face of Hall County government.

Among cuts to other county services, county staff has proposed slashing the Parks and Leisure
Department's budget by 78 percent and reducing library system funding by a little more than 20 percent.

If approved by the commission, the budget would shutter the Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center, nearly all county-operated parks and four of six county libraries. Hall County's Emergency Services would have to make do with 14 ambulances instead of 16.

Also under the proposed budget, county employees would be subject to continued furloughs and unpaid holidays - the equivalent of an 8 percent salary decrease - and would lose their employer's contribution to their retirement accounts. Some will lose their jobs altogether.

County officials say revenues-expenditures disparity became worse after two years of declining property values, dwindling development and cautious consumer spending in an uncertain economy.

The only alternative to the proposed cuts, officials say, would be an increase in the county's property tax rate of 7.77 mills.

Oliver has asked his fellow commissioners to consider an alternative spending plan that raises the current millage rate by 1.41 mills. Oliver's proposal would generate an additional $8 million in revenue, but would still require county officials to make $3.5 million in cuts.

Although his proposal is not on the table Thursday, Oliver may not be able to curry enough favor for a tax increase in time for the county to meet the legal requirements for increasing residents' property taxes.

To do so, the county would have to advertise Oliver's proposal by next Monday and hold at least three public hearings on the matter by June 30, according to Nikki Young, the government's public information officer.

While a majority of commissioners said Monday that they would not favor a tax increase, some said they were considering implementing a "roll-up" of the county's property tax rate to offset revenue losses caused by declining property values. Since it is considered revenue neutral, county officials would not have to hold separate public hearings on such a change.

The roll-up, if done in full, would result in a 0.6 mill increase in the county government's property tax rate. It could potentially fill about $3.4 million of the $11.5 million hole in the county's budget.

Commissioner Billy Powell said he believes at least a majority of the commissioners might be willing to roll-up the tax rate charged for county fire and emergency services. The roll-up might help keep two ambulances on the road that might otherwise be parked in the coming fiscal year, Powell said.

"I feel like everyone would support a roll-up on the fire side just because we need to do what we can to preserve our (fire) protection," Powell said. "It's almost a no-brainer."

In addition to the roll-up for fire services, Powell said he might support a roll-up in the tax rate that supports the county's general fund. Such a roll-up might salvage some of the services provided by the Parks and Leisure Department, but Powell did not know if a majority of commissioners might be willing to go that far.

Commissioner Craig Lutz said he would likely support the millage roll-up on the portion of the county's property tax that pays for fire and emergency services, but there was "no way" he could be in favor of a roll-up in the tax rate that supports the county's other operations.

Lutz is more likely to support privatization of county services that deal with quality of life, he said. County officials have already been charged with looking at allowing the Georgia Mountains YMCA and the local Boys & Girls Clubs chapter to take over youth sports.

"We're going to have to transform the way we do government," Lutz said. "...We will make a balanced budget. We're just going to have to shift responsibilities away from government."

Bell said he has supported privatizing county departments in the past, because he "knew this day was coming."

"We finally are going to take a real look at some options in the private sector that we've been too timid to look at in the past," Bell said. "And right now, we just don't have a choice."

"This county commission has been holding its breath, waiting on the economy to turn around, and now we're almost about to pass out," Bell said. "So we have to make severe changes to go with government and how this government's going to function if we're not going to raise taxes."

Residents will have their say on those changes at Thursday's 6 p.m. commission meeting. The current budget proposal is available for residents to view on the county's website and in the county's finance department.


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