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Looking Ahead: New era, same challenges for Hall County in 09
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Ashley Bell sworn in as Hall commissioner

As we enter 2009, The Times takes a look at what could lie ahead for the region in the coming year. Topics include:

A look ahead at Gainesville

A look ahead at health care

A look ahead at education

A look ahead at transportation

Hall County’s commissioners agree that 2009 will be a challenging year, and some new faces will help forge the path it takes on the issues that lie ahead.

Two notable additions to county government are Charley Nix and Ashley Bell.

Nix began his stint as county administrator on an interim basis in July after long-time administrator Jim Shuler retired. He was chosen unanimously by the commission in November to take on the position full time.

Bell was sworn in Friday to become Hall County’s youngest commissioner at age 28. He fills the District 4 seat on the commission held by Deborah Mack for the last six years.

“I’m really pleased with the job Charley’s done so far, and I look forward to working with Ashley. I think he’s going to be an asset to the county,” District 1 Commissioner Bobby Banks said.

Commission Chairman Tom Oliver noted that while Nix and Bell are the most visible new faces to county government, he expects recent additions in other departments to have a positive impact as well.

“Not only do we have a new commissioner coming on board and a new administrator, but we also have a new parks and rec director (Greg Walker) that’s been on probably six or seven months, we have a new utilities director (Kenneth Rearden) who came on in march of ’08 and we also have a new PR person (Nikki Young) who has somewhat changed the complexion of how we present Hall County, and I think they’ve all done an excellent job,” Oliver said.

Although new people will help the county move forward, commissioners agree that problems from 2008 will carry over to the new year.

The bad economy created a budgeting nightmare, with lost revenues leading to budget cuts that included employee furloughs. Working through the tough financial times is at the top of the commission’s agenda.

“At all levels, we’re going to cut and have sacrifices,” Bell said at his swearing-in ceremony. “We will justify everything we spend and start from scratch.”

And though it will be tough, Nix said he feels the county will make it through 2009 in good shape.
“It’s going to be a tough budget year,” Nix said. “But I really do feel positive about the future.”

Another ghost of 2008 is controversy in some of the offices in Hall County government, most notably in the Tax Assessors Board. Chief appraiser Mike Henderson was reprimanded by the board last week over concerns with his tax records, and accusations over per diem pay by board members led to the resignation of the chairman and scrutiny of two others.

The commissioners are committed to clearing up any confusion.

“I think until we make some changes, not reprimands, there will be a cloud over that office,” Banks said.

Bell said one of his goals on the commission is ethics reform. He wants to breathe life into the ethics committee and allow it to take a more active role and work with whistleblowers to help stop corruption.

“That will take us out of this era that has, in some areas and respects, been a good ol’ boy system,” Bell said.

But long-term goals also are on the horizon. Despite the problems it faces, the Board of Commissioners is looking ahead at plans for growth and improvement.

The new Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax will be on the ballot for voters to decide in the March 17 election. SPLOST is a 1 percent sales tax that specifically funds capital projects, which county officials agree will be crucial to help Hall County prosper.

“SPLOST is going to be an improvement to the county,” Nix said. “We can’t let our current tough economic situation cloud our long-term needs.”

Oliver said new infrastructure will be vital to the county’s future.

“Any time you’re not planning for the future, you’re dying,” Oliver said. “The quality of life depends on the infrastructure people have.”

Commissioner Steve Gailey said an important element to lead the way to revenue and development is sewer construction.

“We’ve got to look at sewer in North Hall,” Gailey said. “Sewer up (Ga.) 365 is going to be a huge economic engine in this county for the future.”

Oliver pointed out that existing sewer rates in the county’s fledgling South Hall system will be one of the first issues the commission has to work out.

“What we’re finding in our sewers and the sewer rates right now are growing pains,” Oliver said. “We’re part of a growing system. ... This commission is prepared to make the tough decisions if we have to.”