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Raises, infrastructure top priorities for Hall County budget
Hall County Government Center

Hall County’s budget process kicks off next month, and few details are being made available ahead of the formal public budget hearings.

The public will get its first look at the Hall County fiscal year 2019 budget on June 21, just 10 days before the budget is set to take effect on July 1, during a special meeting of the Hall County Board of Commissioners. A second special meeting is set for June 28 to adopt the new tax rate and budget.

County budget staff are meeting individually with commissioners in the next few weeks to prepare a final budget for the public, said Hall County Finance Director Zachary Propes. Staff meet with commissioners one or two at a time to stay within limits of Georgia’s open meetings law.

Propes said the county can’t yet disclose whether a rollback rate will be required — a lesser tax rate to compensate for property value growth in the county — or talk about specific items within the budget.

But there are two general items driving the budget-building process this year.

“Our main focus this year has really been compensation and capital,” Propes said.

Pay increases for Hall County employees have been an oft-discussed issue in the past year, even among Republican candidates for the commission, who usually run on budget and tax cuts.

“This year there’ll be more raises,” said Commissioner Scott Gibbs at a Hall County Republican Party meeting in May. “We are going to bump, we have a 401(k) plan, we’re going to up the percentage of that this year to try to be competitive with surrounding counties.”

At the same time, infrastructure has shared in the spotlight as road repair and construction and sewer expansion have been given renewed priority in the growing county.

These dual priorities are reflected in changes to Hall County administration. Two veterans of Gwinnett County were hired in the past year: Jock Connell took over for Randy Knighton as county administrator, and Lisa Johnsa was hired as an assistant administrator.

Johnsa was hired to manage day-to-day running of the county while Marty Nix, an incumbent assistant administrator, manages special projects for the county — work like the renovation of the Hall County courthouse annex and restoration of Healan’s Head’s Mill.

Those two priorities — raises and capital projects — will be laid out in detail during the first budget presentation on June 21, though raises have been on the radar for months.

In January, commissioners signed off on long-sought raises for Hall County Sheriff’s Office deputies. The pay increases cost $377,000 for half of the fiscal year (January to June). The total annual cost for the pay increases will be closer to $750,000.

Other raises were approved earlier in the fiscal year: Most county employees systemwide, including law enforcement, received a 2.5 percent cost-of-living raise in October.

Commissioners and administrators in Hall County have often complained that relatively low pay was turning county government into a training center for surrounding areas, especially in emergency departments.

“A lot of agencies will start cherry-picking those officers and taking them to their agencies — better pay, better benefits, better insurance, better retirement packages than we currently offer,” said Hall Sheriff Gerald Couch while defending the raises before commissioners in January.  “Essentially we became a training ground for a lot of other agencies — and we do that quite well — but I want to keep people.”

In June 2017, commissioners approved a tax increase to 6.7 mills, up from 5.716 mills, amid heavy opposition from property owners. Propes said the county has stayed in its budget this year and that tax revenue is either coming in as expected or exceeding expectations.

The new tax rate for the county must be set before the July 1 start of the next fiscal year.

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