Hall County departments are trying to maintain the status quo with their budgets, but financial officials are saying that’s still not enough.
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 did the same things, just duplicating the government from 2011 to 2012, we’re in the red, and we’re letting everybody know up front,” said Jock Connell, interim county administrator.
“To some degree, this really isn’t a courts or public works or human resources problem. This is a Hall County problem,” Connell said. “We want to hear what every department and agency has to say, and this isn’t just related to what you can do but broader. It’s going to take the whole government to attack this $8.8 million problem.”
Every department and agency that requests funding from Hall County must present a budget this week for the fiscal year that starts July 1. On Monday, 15 department heads outlined their revenues and expenses, most with little change from this year’s budget.
“We recognize the serious economic situation that Hall County and our cities face because we see the effects from the bench and how people find their way into the court system,” said Superior Court Judge Andrew Fuller. “We quickly joined in on the furlough issue and will continue to do that, though it begins to wear on our system and shows with the case load.”
The economy is taking a toll on court revenues as well, he noted. The system saw a $500,000 decline in fees this year.
“This is partly an immigration issue. We know that we’ve had a lot of folks leave Hall County, and directly related to that immigration issue is the economic impact on the building business,” said court administrator Reggie Forrester. “A lot of folks who left worked in construction, and those are some of the same folks who would get in trouble on the weekends, and come Monday their boss would pay to get them out of jail.”
In addition, some people on probation simply can’t pay their monthly fees.
“Some don’t have a job and can’t pay, which doubles the impact if they don’t pay the fine and go to jail. Then we’re paying the bill,” Forrester said. “In an effort to control this decline as much as we can, we allow them to make partial payments. We’re trying to hold on with everything that has happened.”
The public safety department is also noticing a strange revenue decline. Cell phone franchise fees, or E-911 fees that help fund Hall County Central Communications, fell again this year and must be supplemented from the general fund.
“That intuitively doesn’t work for my brain. It seems more and more people use cell phones,” said Lisa Johnsa, interim finance director. “Despite doing everything to hold the line with expenses, we’re losing ground with this department because the general fund supplemental is increasing.”
This could stem from changing consumer habits during the economic downturn, noted Marty Nix, public safety director.
“We don’t get the revenue that comes from the prepaid phones you get at Walmart. That goes to the state,” he said.
“There’s a legislative bill out on this, and our commissioners should check into this. That would be quite the windfall, and right now we don’t get any of that money.”
The downturn is also hitting the code enforcement division as officials devote more time to checking vacant houses, abandoned mobile homes and unkempt yards.
“The Census may say one thing, but we have whole mobile home parks that are totally vacant and people moving in with their parents or siblings,” said Andre Niles, director of the Hall County Marshals Office. “Another problem is absentee landlords who own property but don’t have the funds to clean up and we can’t drag them here from Alabama or Tennessee. Then you also see people who still live there but just don’t take care of their property anymore.”
A few departments asked for replacement vehicles in fiscal year 2012 after putting off the request as long as possible.
“We have a capital request because we have two trucks with more than 250,000 miles in our fleet that are out working every day,” said Mike Ledford, director of Hall County Animal Control. “At this point we’re putting Band-aids on top of Band-aids. Even with that request, the budget is still down from last year, and new ones would help us to drop the vehicle maintenance section.”
Hall County staff will use this week’s hearings to create a final draft of the budget, which will be available to the public on May 24.
Finance officials will hold two or three public hearings before commissioners vote on the budget in June.