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In need of cash, Hall County gets creative
Officials consider selling ads on buses, methods of collecting overdue fines
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As tax revenue continues to dwindle, local governments are coming up with creative ways to bring in a little extra cash.

Commissioner Ashley Bell said he would like the county to look into selling advertising on Red Rabbit buses and other county vehicles, as well as hire a collection agency to collect unpaid fines from the court system.

Though both have the potential to bring in enough money to give government coffers a badly needed boost, there is a good deal of work — and maybe even new laws — that would need to happen first.

Hall County will pass its fiscal year 2011 budget next month. Cost-cutting measures like furlough days, hiring freezes and a halt to all capital purchases will continue, but officials worry that tax revenues could continue to strain an already tight budget.

“The county’s done a great job of cutting, but we’re running out of places to cut,” Bell said. “We don’t have a spending problem, we have a revenue problem.”

Hall Area Transit, which includes Red Rabbit buses along with dial-a-ride services, are funded jointly by the county and the city of Gainesville under the Community Service Center.

Center Director Phillippa Lewis Moss said in 2009, 11 percent of the $2.2 million transportation budget was split by the city and the county, and 77 percent was paid for by the federal government.

“Whatever money the local governments make in advertisements, we actually would share that with the federal government,” Moss said.

While buses would be the most likely canvas for advertising, Bell said there are plenty of other options — like parks and leisure vehicles and even ambulances — that could be fair game.

“It just depends how far we want to go,” Bell said.

Moss plans to research this summer to determine the feasibility of advertising. She said she will look at advertising inside and outside of buses as well as in shelters at bus stops.

“The more difficult thing to do is having ads on the outside of the buses; they’re small,” Moss said. “It may not accommodate the kind of advertisements people see in other cities.”

Moss said it will be important to make sure the county will get the best “bang for the buck” selling advertising on county vehicles, considering that painting and retrofitting would be necessary.

“The biggest hurdle for staff to get by is to figure out what the potential profit margin is,” Moss said. “I agree with our elected officials and business partners that at a time like today, where we have so few revenue sources, we need to look intensely for any possible revenue sources, and the staff will certainly be aggressive in our efforts.”

Bell said the county would make sure the ads were tasteful and carefully placed. Ideally, local businesses would be interested in purchasing the advertising.

“You don’t want any company selling alcohol, any company selling tobacco,” Bell said. “That’s something we want to be sensitive about.”

Another way the commission is considering raising revenue is by contracting with a private collection agency to claim unpaid court fines.

Court Administrator Reggie Forrester said there are a number of hurdles the county would need to cross before hiring a private company to recoup fines and forfeitures. The county has about $2 million in unpaid fines that date back to 1983.

“It’s a simple idea but a complex process,” Forrester said.

A number of cities now use collection agencies, but Forrester said he could not find any counties that do so because of the way the law is set up.

“Our fines and forfeitures are governed by state law,” Forrester said. “City fines and forfeitures are governed by city ordinance.”

Most sentences in a criminal case include a fine. By law, the collection of fines and forfeitures is vested with the state probation office for felonies and with a private probation company for misdemeanors, Forrester said.

Probation officers set up a payment plan during the probation period.

“When the probation expires, the probation office has no arm to collect those funds any longer,” Forrester said.

If the fine is still unpaid, a judge will issue a tax lien on the person’s property.

The responsibility then transfers to the sheriff’s office.

“That law is still on the books, but it’s pretty antiquated in today’s world because the sheriffs just don’t have the staff. ... They’re not in the collection business,” Forrester said.

Forrester said his office is researching ways to allow the county to go through a private collection agency, though it may involve a court order or even a change to Georgia law.

“I think this is an issue that is common to all 159 counties,” Forrester said. “If we can find an avenue, I think it will be beneficial to the state of Georgia.”

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