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Retirement benefits may return to Hall County
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Hall County Board of Commissioners meeting

What: Vote on whether or not to reinstate retirement benefits for county employees or wait till January to make a decision

When: 5 p.m. Thursday

Where: Georgia Mountains Center, 301 Main St. SW, Gainesville  

Employee retirement benefits could be the first thing to be reinstated as Hall County struggles to peel off austerity measures it started almost three years ago to battle the recession.

Though the county is not yet out of the woods, economically speaking, County Administrator Charley Nix asked the Hall County Board of Commissioners at Tuesday's work session to consider restarting county contributions to employees' retirement accounts.

"The past couple years have been quite a struggle for the employees," Nix said. "We've really held hands on this thing for a long time but you're three years into a Draconian system."

In 2008, Hall County began a series of budget cuts in an effort to battle the low tax revenue caused by the deepening recession, including a hiring freeze, employee furlough days and halting annual merit increases and retirement plan contributions.

Most of the cuts came from personnel, which makes up the lion's share of the county's general fund budget.

"It's my recommendation that we lift the retirement freeze at this time," Nix said. "I feel like it would be a boost to morale to see that through the end of next year."

Though Nix admitted his recommendation goes against the more fiscally cautious recommendation of county Finance Director Michaela Thompson.

After reviewing all the county funds, Thompson said there was a little bit of extra cash in the landfill enterprise fund, which is typically used to purchase and repair capital equipment in addition to offsetting any losses suffered throughout the year.

"This is not a self-sustaining source of funds," Thompson said. "This is just a one-time use of cash available in that fund that can be used. This would only reinstate the retirement benefits through the end of the year. We don't know what's going to happen next year."

Chairman Tom Oliver said he would be in favor of restarting the retirement contributions.

"I think we've got to take the position to protect the integrity of this community and this county. I think by not supporting our county employees we're putting some things in jeopardy," Oliver said.

Commissioner Steve Gailey said it would be unwise to restore retirement contributions until there is a steady cash flow.

"My problem with this is we're looking at funding something for seven months that there may not be any funding for after that. If you give and then you taketh away, then it creates a worse situation," Gailey said.

Nix said employees would be happy to have the money for their retirement accounts, with the hope the commission will make it a priority to reinstate the benefits permanently.

"I have faith that you guys will find other ways to get us there," Nix said. "It's just not sustainable to expect employees to live forever with these measures in place. It was meant to be temporary."

The commission will vote on what direction to take at its 5 p.m. meeting Thursday. One option the board leaned toward was waiting to make a decision until new commissioners take over in January.