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Tax chief, commissioner spar over tag offices
Echols encourages paying taxes online
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Finger-pointing over long lines at the Hall County tag office is ruffling the feathers of a couple of elected officials.

Last week, Commissioner Scott Gibbs began telling his constituents to direct complaints to Hall County Tax Commissioner Keith Echols.

Echols, in turn, has been directing blame over closure of two satellite tax and tag offices to members of the Board of Commissioners, who voted to cut his budget June 30.

The situation came to a head late last week when Gibbs said Echols was to blame for the decision to close the North and South Hall tag offices, because Gibbs "was never elected to run the tax office."

The statements Gibbs made at the Sept. 8 commission meeting angered the tax commissioner.

"I should have been at the meeting (Thursday) but if I had, I'd have just blown up," Echols said. "It's better for me just not to be there anyway."

Echols contends he had little choice but to close the tag offices in Clermont and Oakwood, centralizing motor vehicle tax payments at the downtown tax office.

Commissioners carved up a spending plan for the current fiscal year in the final days before it began July 1, including cuts to county spending not yet seen before. Two proposed spending plans for the current fiscal year had previously been made public, neither threatening to close tag offices.

The plan commissioners approved became public at the same June 30 meeting in which they voted 4-1 to enact it.

A PowerPoint presentation detailing the spending plan unveiled at that meeting stated the cuts in funding would include closing satellite tag offices by September.

"They cut my budget $350,000 without my knowledge," Echols said.

Echols said he didn't learn about the budget reduction until several days after commissioners approved the countywide spending plan. He said he was told about it in a meeting with then-acting finance director Lisa Johnsa and acting county administrator Jock Connell.

"They said ‘you know what that means?' because what it meant was they were not going to enlarge the area here at the main office, so I had no choice but to eliminate six positions," Echols said. "And in the cut was the funds that were allocated for the satellite tag offices."

But Gibbs maintains it wasn't his decision to close the tag offices.

"He's a constitutional officer; I voted to cut the tax commissioner's budget," Gibbs said. "Those were the recommendations made to his office ... those folks are all elected just like I am, and all the commission can do ... is cut their money."

Gibbs contends the commission has no say in how Echols spends his money once the board allocates it.

"After we voted on him buying those hundred widgets, he can buy a hundred triangles with it," Gibbs said. "There's nothing we can do after that budget is voted on. What he spends it on is strictly up to his oversight."

While Echols said he feels the decision to close the satellite tag offices was that of the commissioners, he said closing the North Hall office was "the logical thing to do."

In fact, Echols said closing the Clermont tax and tag office had been mentioned several times in the past as a cost-saving measure.

But closing the South Hall office in Oakwood, Echols said, was a "mistake." He said the number of transactions per day at the South Hall and the downtown offices usually topped 1,000, as opposed to the 50 per day in the North Hall branch.

And Echols stands by his feeling the "mistake" of closing the South Hall tax and tag office wasn't his.

"I did not close the satellite offices," Echols said. "It was forced. It was a decision to close the tag offices made by the county commissioners."

As the government works out the kinks of its new budget reality, residents face long waits at the downtown tag office, which is now responsible for processing motor vehicle tag renewals for the entire county.

Chairman Tom Oliver last week moved to reopen the satellite offices using county reserve funds, but he was the lone vote in favor of the motion.

In the meantime, Echols implores taxpayers to use the Internet to pay motor vehicle taxes or to send in payments for vehicle tags by mail.

There is also a drop box on the side of the Joint Administration Building facing Henry Ward Way that can be used to make payments after hours.

 

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