When Hall County finance officials unveiled a $92 million budget for the 2015 fiscal year this week, it soon became clear the operative word for the spending plan was “proposed.”
That’s because county commissioners appear intent on making changes — some significant, others minor — before agreeing on a budget next month.
“There are a lot of things I don’t like about it,” Commissioner Craig Lutz said. “I still have some heartburn with some of the individual things we’re spending money on.”
That sentiment has been echoed by other commissioners.
“I think you’ll see some more cuts,” Commissioner Scott Gibbs said.
But exactly what will be cut and what will be added remains open to negotiation.
“Things will change between now and the end of June,” Commissioner Billy Powell said. “Each commissioner has concerns, but they’re different concerns.”
Nevertheless, a few priorities are rising to the surface, beginning with lowering the amount of reserves used to balance the budget.
The $92 million proposal includes the use of $5.6 million in fund balance, which can be thought of as reserve money typically set aside for emergency spending needs.
“I don’t like using as much fund balance as proposed,” Powell said, adding he would support using only between $3 million and $3.5 million. “We worked real hard to get our fund balance up to where it is now.”
The current fund balance stands at close to $23 million, and Commissioner Jeff Stowe said it was imperative for the county to keep that figure at between 15 and 20 percent of the budget. Doing so, he added, helps the county maintain its bond rating, which in turn makes it easier to borrow money.
In recent years, the county has budgeted about $5 million in fund balance to act as a plug to cover expenses, though officials have gotten away without having to tap this money.
But that could change this year for one big reason.
At this time, projected general fund revenues top $86 million, but total spending requests from county departments exceed $98 million. Closing that $12 million gap will take a little finesse and a lot of tough decisions.
“I feel a little bit uncomfortable seeing some increases in spending when the revenues still remain flat,” Gibbs said.
Digging into the fund balance to cover some requests can alleviate this burden, but commissioners are divided about just how much to use.
“I’m not comfortable with using any of it,” Chairman Richard Mecum said.
How much reserve money winds up being added to the budget will correspond with the level of disappointment that is sure to reign as department leaders forgo some of their wishes.
For example, it is unclear whether the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Services will get all of the replacement vehicles they have requested. And requests from the Tax Commissioner’s Office for additional personnel and better wages appear to have been ignored.
Deciding what to fund and what not to fund is a dilemma county leaders face every year. But with spending requests up, funding priorities become subject to the values and opinions of officials.
Mecum, for instance, said he is looking to bolster the budgets of public safety agencies, in part given his past professional experience in law enforcement. He wants the sheriff’s office to get all the new patrol cars it seeks.
Meanwhile, Lutz has repeatedly said the county spends too little on infrastructure, though convincing voters to support a new round of special purpose local option sales tax might be the remedy for this.
Stowe said he wanted to fund a new judge’s position at the juvenile court, as well as increase the budget of the county’s emergency medical services division.
Gibbs, however, said he is unsure how much new personnel the county can afford.
“We’re about as lean as we can get position-wise,” he said, adding new positions are something “we just can’t afford.”
Adding new positions could come at the expense of raises, bonuses or cost-of-living adjustments for current personnel, none of which are now budgeted.
Whether to roll back the property tax rate, and by how much, is perhaps the most important and potentially controversial decision county officials will have to make.
Officials proposed lowering the millage rate from 6.25 to 6.008 after the tax digest, or taxable property, grew 6.58 percent over the last year.
Without a rollback, the increased revenues from the growth in the tax digest would equate to a tax increase, a prospect officials are hesitant — to say the least — to support.
Changes in the tax digest are still being calculated, and the latest projection has the millage rate rolling back to around 5.98.
But in an effort to avoid what is technically a tax increase, and any associated furor that might come from residents, county employees might be prevented from receiving merit raises or cost-of-living adjustments for yet another year.
County officials have acknowledged the work that remains to be done in the coming weeks to settle on a budget, which must be adopted prior to the start of the new fiscal year, July 1.
“There’s quite a bit to still flush through,” Stowe said.
A first public hearing on the budget will be held June 12, with adoption of the budget expected at a June 26 Board of Commissioners meeting.
“At this point in time, I’m just not comfortable with this budget at all,” Lutz said.