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Many in Hall County say tax hike is better than cuts
Even conservatives willing to pay more because of possible closures
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When it comes to preserving government services that affect their children, even fiscally conservative Republicans, it seems, are willing to pay a little more.

After a budget proposal surfaced June 2 that would keep Hall County property tax rates steady but threatened to severely cut recreation and library services, residents lined up one after another at public hearings asking for a tax increase.

And yes, a lot of them were Republicans.

Many, like Kelly Davis of Flowery Branch, see the cost of losing what they consider essential services greater than that of a tax increase.

Davis said the proposal would "ruin the county."

"As many people here have said, generally, I'm a conservative, and I'm usually against a tax increase, but there's an exception to every rule," Davis said. "This is obviously the exception to that rule.

"How can you tell people to come live in Hall County when we don't have parks for your kids, we don't have books for your kids to read; if you get robbed, we can't come help you; if your house burns down, nobody's going to come save you; and if you have a heart attack, we don't have any ambulances?"

Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver, also a Republican, proposed a tax increase late last month to offset at least $8 million of the county's $11.5 million deficit in the general fund for fiscal 2012.

Oliver's proposal is for a 1.41 mill increase — 0.6 mills of which would be a roll-up in the tax rate to offset declining property values — but would still include some $3.5 million in cuts, including eliminating some 55 positions.

Commissioners Ashley Bell and Billy Powell agreed to put the proposal before the public for discussion.

Oliver proposed the tax increase to help save county employees' retirement funds and keep from cutting their holiday pay.

But it's also his memory of coaching his children in Little League sports - and others' ability to make those memories — that Oliver looks to save.

"I was very fortunate. With three children, I coached them for 20-plus years in tee-ball and softball and basketball through the park and rec system," said Oliver. "That is a priceless moment for me and my family. This (tax increase) will cost me and Sally 28 cents a day to keep it all."

Saving both the county's emergency and quality of life services, Oliver says, will impact the county's ability to attract industry.

"Nobody wants to relocate a business here knowing your ambulances might be late getting to you; your firemen have no retirement; your sheriff's deputies that are policing your neighborhoods, you don't think enough of them to offer them a retirement; your court systems, you're taking all of their paid holidays, plus a furlough day," Oliver said.

Residents and local government employees said consistently last week that they would rather pay more taxes to keep county fire trucks and ambulances on the road. The June 2 proposal would eliminate two county ambulances.

In conservative climates like Hall County's, political scientist Ross Alexander at North Georgia College & State University says the last thing to cut is always public safety.

"When we need them, they're there, so why can we not be there for them?" said the Rev. Emeril Hill of Gainesville. "I'm Republican also. I don't like taxes myself. But the fact of the matter remains this, we've got to do something."

Emotional responses like Davis' don't surprise Alexander. Any time budget cuts directly affect children, he says parents will band together against it, even if it means shouldering a greater tax burden.

"You see it most often with school referenda, but you'll also see it with those issues like parks and recreation and the library," Alexander said. "Because those are very visible programs and primarily children use, it's a pretty easy sell."

Yet some conservatives still say the tax hike isn't necessary. Those residents echoed the mood of last year's election, when candidates ran and won on promises of no more taxes.

"I have been taxed enough," Flowery Branch resident Vicki Bentley told commissioners at Thursday night's hearing. "Cut. Don't tax and spend."

In line with those views, Commissioner Craig Lutz has been adamant on his opposition to a tax hike of any kind, saying instead that county government must shrink.

The Hall County Republican Party also opposes a tax hike, citing that government must get rid of nonessential services in a tough economy.

But in last week's public hearings, those residents were in the minority. Many who spoke against saving recreation programs or employees' paid holidays were booed by others in Thursday's massive crowd at the Georgia Mountains Center.

Those who stood in support, like Hall County Board of Education member Sam Chapman, were applauded. Chapman argued on behalf of the Chicopee Agricultural Center, which would close July 1 under the budget proposal, and the county employees who faced pay cuts in the form of unpaid holidays and continued monthly furloughs.

"Go ahead and raise my taxes," Chapman said. "Let's support everybody. Let's quit kicking the county employees ... so far they've shouldered it all."

Bell, who switched to the Republican Party last year, said Oliver's suggestion of a tax increase deserves a discussion, at least. Bell said he still hasn't decided how to vote.

"I'm about solving the problems, not really whether it involves a tax increase or not," Bell said.

And though his county party doesn't stand behind him, Oliver has repeated where he stands. His proposal, with the 1.41 mill increase, will receive its first public hearing at 6 p.m. June 21.

"It's bigger than Republican or Democrat, it's about peoples' lives and safety," said Oliver. "I'm quite passionate about this."