The Times will lay out the details of the Hall County budget — showing where costs are rising, where they’re falling and why the county is adding employees.
Those who turned up to Hall County’s two public hearings on Thursday were clear: They don’t want a tax increase.
Comments from more than 20 people, including those who spoke at the 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. hearings, were almost wholly opposed to the county’s proposed general fund property tax hike to 6.95 mills from 5.716 mills.
Members of the Hall County Board of Commissioners said the additional tax is necessary to pay for increasing costs of local government.
Much of the increase is driven by unfunded state mandates, as commissioners noted on Thursday, but the county has also budgeted a 2.5 percent cost of living raise for employees and is reviving some of its capital investment programs cut during the recession.
Meanwhile, property assessments in the county were going up before the county started talking taxes. With the boost to property values from last year, the commissioners would have to roll back to 5.501 mills to avoid a tax increase as required by state law, according to its 2017 tax digest.
Instead, the county is proposing its first general fund property tax increase in 12 years.
A few of the speakers at the Thursday morning hearing argued that with the economy improving in the area they’ve seen large assessment increases — the taxable value of a home as appraised by the Hall County tax assessor’s office — that make the proposed tax increase more painful.
“I’ve been so frustrated in the assessment process,” said Flowery Branch resident Michael Schweiger. “My property has increased 100 percent in value in the last five years. I’ve appealed several times with very, very little understanding. So the increase in millage rate is adding fuel to the fire — you can’t look at it all by itself.”
He noted that the county’s 26 percent tax increase feels more like a 126 percent tax increase with recent assessments.
“I’ve seen two of my neighbors on my street in their 80s and 90s sell their homes because of what’s happened in the past several years,” Schweiger said.
Other speakers called on Chairman Richard Higgins and commissioners Jeff Stowe, Kathy Cooper, Scott Gibbs and Billy Powell to cut county spending rather than raise taxes.
Gibbs and Powell said they wish the county didn’t have to rely so heavily on property taxes, but that Georgia state law boxes counties in on broad-based taxes.
“I feel like we’re punishing the people who get out and work and try to do better — those seem to be property owners,” Gibbs said at the evening hearing on Thursday.
Powell said he preferred a sales tax setup similar to the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
“I love SPLOST. I love voters getting to vote themselves a tax; it’s the fairest way to do it,” Powell said. “I hope we always continue, but they can only be used for capital items.”
Gibbs put it another way.
“I can build the best, most beautiful buildings — the most functional buildings — but I can’t pay a light bill with it,” Gibbs said of SPLOST. “I can’t staff it; I can’t clean it; I can’t do anything with that.”
So, with Hall County’s population and the cost of government rising, the county is going for a higher property tax.
Along with the tax increase, the county’s general fund — which funds the majority of the county’s day-to-day operations — is increasing to $103.6 million from $96.9 million. The largest single increases in the fund come from a 2.5 percent cost of living raise, a fifth Hall County Superior Court judge and staff and increases to public safety spending.
“I understand why you’re doing it,” said Greg Riley, who lives in North Hall, of the budget and tax increase. “But I think it’s too fast and too much.”
Other speakers emphasized that any tax increase is money out of the pockets of county residents.
“Most of the people in this country haven’t had a raise — even a cost of living raise — in the last 10 years,” said Robert Phipps. “I know you may need the money … but you already get an increase every year by raising assessments.”
Chairman Higgins said the commission didn’t intend to rubber-stamp the budget without more review.
“We’re going to look at this next week before our next meeting and see if there are areas we can trim down,” he said, closing the evening hearing on Thursday. “It’s not like we’re just plowing through with what we’ve got. We listen to people. We’re trying to — we’ll look at it this next week and see if we can try and find areas to trim some fat off.”