As Hall County government prepares to evaluate its budget due to expected losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hall County Board of Commissioners’ chairman faces two Republican challengers.
No Democrats are running for the position, so the winner on June 9 will secure the position and begin the term in January.
Incumbent Richard Higgins, who was first elected in 2016, is running against Bobby Banks, a former commissioner, and Judy Sartain, a local adoption attorney.
When: 5:30 p.m. May 27
Where: Zoom video, register
They will likely be faced with the challenge of helping the county recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, as the county expects to see a loss in revenues.
“We just have to be really fiscally conservative with our money moving forward because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our goal is to maintain the programs that we have,” Higgins said. “... It’s going to be a tightrope to walk this next year.”
Banks, who was on the board during the 2008 economic recession, said that experience gives him some insight into helping the county deal with budget challenges.
“We did the best we could figure out at the time, without having to raise taxes. We furloughed employees one day a month, that included commissioners, instead of laying people off,” he said.
All three candidates said they would work to avoid a tax increase, even in light of budget shortfalls.
“We can’t continue to spend like there’s no tomorrow. The rainy day is going to come, and of course now, the rainy day is here,” Sartain said.
But Sartain said changes made during the pandemic have shown how the government can use technology to operate more efficiently and get citizens more involved.
“There needs to be more transparency, more openness, no more behind closed doors decisions,” she said. “There’s a myriad of methods that that can be accomplished, with virtual town hall meetings, with Facebook Live events, with Zoom meetings.”
Occupation: administrative coordinator of CBT Inc. in Oakwood
Political experience: Served on the Hall County Board of Commissioners 2007-2010
Residence: South Hall
Occupation: ran a logistics company for 30 years
Political experience: Elected chairman of the Hall County Board of Commissioners in 2016 and previously served as chairman of the Hall County Board of Education for 11 years.
Residence: North Hall
Occupation: Founder of North Georgia Adoptions, a legal practice focusing on adoption law.
Political experience: First run for office
Residence: Chestatee area
Candidates on 3 issues
Banks: “Over the next couple years, it’s going to be a priority to maintain services that we have without an increase,” he said. “I think it’s going to be hard to do because of the coronavirus.”
He said “if we can trim the budget, that’s even better.”
Higgins: The county will be facing difficult financial decisions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re getting all our department heads to look at ways to reduce non-essential spending. We’re eliminating discretionary spending, prioritizing purchases, and we’ll probably postpone major projects unless it’s critical,” Higgins said. Avoiding a tax increase will be his goal. “We’re going to have a bare bones budget as best we can, but we still have to provide services for people. You have public services, public safety and the courts that still have to go on,” he said.
Sartain: Her goal would be to avoid tax increases, although she said that even when the millage rate stays steady, taxpayers can end up paying more for several reasons, including if their property assessment value increased. “The revenues through property taxes have continued to be a burden, not only on the homeowner but also on folks that own commercial property,” Sartain said. She said tax increases can then affect prices for consumers.
Banks: He would work to recruit new businesses and jobs to Hall County while balancing the needs that come with that growth. “(Development) is probably one of the biggest priorities, other than the budget, that we have — how to manage it without overcompensating for housing versus new business,” Banks said. “That would be one of my main projects, would be to attract new businesses and to control the growth of the county government and to bring new jobs to the county.”
Higgins: The county has seen growth over the past few years and that is expected to continue, especially in South Hall. The county has been planning for that growth, including with master plans looking at services such as fire services, parks and sewer and water treatment. He said officials aim to be especially conscious of greenspace needs in the county as developments move in. “We’re trying to still preserve the Hall County that we know and love,” Higgins said.
Sartain: While growth in Hall County can be expected, the county government can plan ahead. “Nobody that I know of wants Hall County to look like Gwinnett. Growth is inevitable. Growth is coming to come,” Sartain said. “... But I believe it can be managed much more thoughtfully, much more carefully, and with a longer view.” She said the county’s infrastructure should match its development. “So far, they’ve been putting the cart before the horse. They’ve been allowing the growth and the new structures and businesses and new development, and then playing catch up,” she said.
Banks: He hopes to address potholes on county roads and expand sewer services. He said the county government should communicate with municipalities about infrastructure and services. “The best thing we can do is work closer together with the cities and the county to do a better job of trying to coordinate services and combine services if possible,” he said.
Higgins: Infrastructure priorities will include the widening of Spout Springs Road in South Hall and the construction of the Sardis Connector. “That’s been on the planning books for a number of years, and it’s hopefully going to alleviate some traffic from downtown and have another way to get through,” he said.
Sartain: The Sardis Connector could alleviate traffic on areas of Green Street, Thompson Bridge Road and Cleveland Highway. “Everything comes to a bottleneck in downtown Gainesville,” she said. She said decisions about projects should be made with a tighter budget in mind. “But right now, is that something we need to be spending our money on?” she said. “The budget shortfall, I’m hoping, is going to be short-term, but the reality is working with the restrictions now that we’ve been handed down by the reality of COVID.”