Coping with cuts
An occasional series examining the fallout of more than $11.5 million in cuts to Hall County's fiscal 2012 budget.
Genard Keith, after 45 minutes in a plastic chair in the hallway of the Joint Administration building, acknowledged that on a Friday afternoon, he'd been waiting "too long for a tag."
Keith, whose birthday falls on Sept. 5, had to renew five car tags in his name Friday, minutes before the holiday weekend began.
After county offices closed Friday afternoon, Keith wouldn't have access to government offices until Wednesday — two days after his tag expired.
"I can't take no chances, because, you know, on my side of town, the police will be out for the holidays," Keith, of Gainesville, said. "I ain't going to get stopped for no tag — be in jail for my birthday, no tag."
Friday afternoon, after a trip to his Oakwood insurance office, Keith drove to the South Hall tag office expecting the quick, courteous service to which he'd grown accustomed.
But he found the office empty. Satellite tag offices in the county shuttered two weeks ago, a victim of the county's budgetary shortfall.
Their closure — especially that of the satellite office in South Hall, which did as much business as the main office downtown — placed a strain on the employees left to handle the county's tag renewals and meant at least a half-hour wait for the residents trying to take care of government business before the Labor Day weekend.
The closings caused confusion, too.
The phone number for the South Hall tag office in Oakwood was still active Friday, though it closed on Aug. 19, noted a woman who waited behind Keith Friday to renew two vehicle tags.
Donna Pass, of Chestnut Mountain, called the number for the South Hall tag office, noted the hours of service, and planned to go there to renew the tags for her teenaged daughters' vehicles, she said. But at 3:30 p.m., in a phone conversation with her brother, Pass learned the office had been closed for nearly two weeks.
Pass, who showed up at the downtown tag office at about 10 minutes after 4 p.m., was still waiting as the clock neared 5.
Pass has a birthday on Tuesday, meaning her vehicle tags will expire before the office is open again.
Even though the holiday weekend will have ended, county offices will be closed again Tuesday for a furlough day — an unpaid day off for employees that occurs once each month to help the government cut costs — and won't reopen until Wednesday.
Though tag renewals can be done online or through the mail, most residents still end up in the tag office, Hall County Tax Commissioner Keith Echols said.
"A lot of people don't trust the mail, and a lot of people can't use the Internet because they can't use the computer," Echols said.
The tag office line was steady all day Friday, with most customers saying they'd waited at least 45 minutes for service. The demand for a renewed tag was so high Friday that Echols said his employees barely had a chance to take a break.
By 3 p.m., nearly 1,000 people had been to the office.
"I've got some tired employees," Echols said Friday afternoon.
But it wasn't just Friday that filled the halls of the government building with county residents looking to pay vehicle taxes.
The whole week had been busy, Echols said.
By Wednesday, the office downtown processed 3,341 changes or renewals to car tags — about 1,000 more transactions than the South Hall tag office did in its last week in operation.
Thursday proved just as busy with another 971 transactions.
Echols had no doubt on Friday that his office would process more than 1,000 tag changes by day's end.
On the last week the South Hall tag office was open, 2,349 transactions took place there, Echols said.
And though employees knew what to expect with the closures, taxpayers didn't seem prepared for the change.
Dexter Banks, of Gainesville, said he'd never had to wait so long for service at the tag office.
"I thought the line would be a little bit shorter," Banks said. "But when I came up, I was surprised how many people were here."
And Keith, who sat a few chairs down from Banks, didn't understand why he was having to wait. Being told the county had a budget shortfall it shored up with cuts to services didn't seem to shed any more light on the subject.
"They're getting money from me — what do you mean they don't have any money?" Keith said.