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Tax hike for Hall property owners still on the table
Final decision is due in late June
0610budget1
Hall County Commissioners Ashley Bell, left, and Billy Powell greet visitors Thursday evening at a packed meeting of the Board of Commissioners at the Georgia Mountains Center. Commissioners presented the budget proposal to the public for the first time.

The people speak

"With the elimination of Parks and Leisure Services and with the safety aspect, this is a price that we cannot afford. ... You've always heard that idle hands are the devil's workshop. I would submit that would be the case. Not only will our county be unrecognizable, it will no longer be anywhere that people want to live, want to work, or want to play. You therefore could not entice anybody to locate business or an industry here because we have nothing to offer them." — Ann Jones

"Twenty-five years ago, I signed my children up for parks and rec. They played every sport. They are now responsible, taxpaying, wonderful children. I now have grandchildren playing parks and rec. I cannot imagine if my grandchildren stopped playing. There would be nothing left for them." — Sue Drolet

"When my expenditures are greater then my revenue, I have to reduce my expenditures. When I do that, the first place I start is my leisure activities. I play a few less rounds of golf, I take my wife to the movies a little less and I pay the essential things I have to pay in order to sustain our lifestyle. ... I'm hoping when you guys are looking at this budget, you do the same thing. I know this is going to be unpopular, but the leisurely activities aren't necessary. The fire department is necessary. The sheriff's office is necessary. Those are the things we don't need to cut. The parks aren't going to do us any good if we have a heart attack in our home and the ambulance doesn't get there in time to save our lives." — Jeremy Griffey

"I want to know why this life-affecting decision was not made public to us sooner when more options and public considerations could have been weighed. ... What kind of county are we forging for our children? No parks, no libraries and only a hope and a prayer that the ambulance can get there on time." — Ashley Tumlin

"Y'all had no business buying that Liberty Mutual building. If you would sell that stupid building, you could keep everything on this list. ... Stay where you are, crank yourself in your offices and let people keep the services that they're paying for. Y'all need to take a Dave Ramsey course and learn to live on rice and beans." — Renée Gerrell

The employees speak

"A lot of this is convienence. I'm here to talk about something that's going to affect people's lives. ... If we lose those people, that's going to affect our ISO rating which in turns affects everyone's insurance on a day to day basis. ... If this goes through its going to severely impact our service delivery." — Fire Chief David Kimbrell

"What the furloughs have done so far is take my (employees) lunch money. And without complaint they gather around a table in a storage room and eat tomato sandwiches together. Anymore cuts and I have a single mother of three children who loses her home. ... We simply cannot ask more of these folks." — Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard

"We are one and two generations removed from the greatest generation of sacrifice in the history of this country. Our parents and grandparents sacrificed and rationed cotton, and potatoes, and fuel and tires for the good of the community, for the good of the country and for the good of the local economy. Where have we lost our heart? When did we become so divisive and destructive to our brothers and sisters? The mixed messages of we don't need this, we don't want that, cut them, has ripped a hole into this community and the democracy on which it's based. ... Rise up people and own this community." — Marci Summer
Facility manager for Mulberry Creek Community Center

A tax increase for Hall County property owners may indeed be an option.

After adjourning a more-than-three-hour meeting packed with people passionate about a proposal to severely cut county services Thursday, at least three county commissioners directed Interim County Administrator Jock Connell to advertise a possible increase in county property tax rates.

But even those who gave Connell the go-ahead say they are uncertain whether they will actually vote for the advertised increase as they find a way to salvage county parks, libraries and emergency services.

Chairman Tom Oliver knows where he stands, however.

It is Oliver's proposal of a 1.41-mill increase in the county's property tax rate that will soon be advertised in The Times, which serves as the county's legal organ.

The increase would cost the owner of a $180,000 home about $100 a year more in taxes.

Oliver proposed the increase last month as a way to help bridge a significant gap between county revenues and expenditures while still keeping a number of government services intact.

As it stands, the county's budget for the upcoming fiscal year falls short $11.5 million. County staff has blamed the revenue shortfall on collecting fewer property and sales taxes while funding a planned move of the county's administrative offices and dealing with rising costs for fuel and employee benefits.

A spending plan the staff offered up to commissioners did not include a tax increase, but eliminated funding for two of 16 ambulances, threatened to shut down 16 parks and left the county's library board with a decision to close as many as four libraries.

The cuts were austere, as dozens of county residents and employees made sure to point out at a public hearing on the matter Thursday night.

Well before the night's public hearing was set to begin, more than 300 chairs were filled in an expanded meeting room at the Georgia Mountains Center. And by the time the meeting began, even more people had gathered outside to be let in by Gainesville's fire marshal one-by-one as others decided to leave.

Of those who stood before the commission, most made impassioned pleas on behalf of the county's Parks and Leisure Services department.

"Why is the largest cut, percentage-wise, in the department that affects our children most?" asked Pam Furry of Flowery Branch.

Under the proposed budget, the Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center would close and only the parks operated jointly with the local school system would remain open after June 30.

In a brief address to the commission before the public hearing, parks Director Greg Walker called the proposal an "annihilation of services."

And parents of children in the county's youth sports program seemed to agree, applauding as Walker sat down.

Some were almost too emotional to speak when it came their time.

"I'm mad, and I'm going to cry through this whole thing," said a tearful Ashley Tumlin, who said working at the concession stand at the Chicopee Agricultural Center had made it possible for her sons to participate in youth sports.

Emotions were similarly high for county employees — many of whom worked for the sheriff's office and the county's judicial system — as they begged the commission and the community to understand their own burdens after years of furloughs and unpaid overtime.

"My brothers and sisters and I have fully committed ourselves to this community," said Richard Trinkwalder, an employee of the sheriff's office. "We only ask that this community be fully committed to us."

While there were a few, like local real estate executive Jack Waldrip, who said they were opposed to a tax increase no matter the consequences, others said they did not mind paying more money in taxes if it meant saving the county services that were on the line.

"If you need to raise the millage rate ... to support this county, then raise it," said Belmont resident Larry Nix.

And after the meeting adjourned, at least some commissioners were considering that possibility. Oliver and Commissioners Ashley Bell and Billy Powell asked Connell to advertise the possible tax increase, although Bell and Powell weren't certain they'd support it.

Advertising a tax increase — at the least — gives commissioners the option to raise taxes as they formulate a budget for the government's upcoming fiscal year.

State law requires local governments to advertise a tax increase, then hold three public hearings on the matter before making such a decision. In order to pass a balanced budget by June 30, an advertisement of a tax increase must appear no later than June 13, according to Nikki Young, Hall County's public information officer.

Even as he gave Connell direction to move forward with the advertisement for a tax increase, Bell was quick to point out he may not vote in favor of one.

"At this point, I think everyone wants us to put all options out there, all options on the table," said Bell.

"... Now, we have a choice of raising taxes or not raising taxes or doing a roll-up. But unless we advertise it, it's not even an option. I felt the chairman made his case enough to be given an up-or-down vote on the tax increase."

Bell, who previously said he'd reserve an opinion on the budget proposal until he had a chance to hear from his constituents, said he had a better idea of residents' priorities after Thursday's meeting.

"I don't see a budget that's going to put our officers and firemen in any worse financial shape than they are right now," said Bell. "I don't see that being an option, and I think that's a necessary end of government to protect people's life and property. And I think after that, we've got to sit around two at a time and figure out where the priorities are."

Powell has only said he'd support a roll up in property tax rates, or a millage rate hike that would offset a loss in property values.

"Of the total number of people that got up, there were only five people that said ‘cut,'" recalled Powell.

"There were only five out of everybody that got up that said ‘cut, cut, cut, cut,' so they were obviously very passionate about ... parks."

Commissioners Craig Lutz and Scott Gibbs said they were still opposed to a tax increase of any kind.

And while they may not agree on the priorities, all five county commissioners are aware that the time to those ends meet is running out.

"We've got a lot of massaging of numbers to do between now and (when the budget is passed before July 1)," said Powell.

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