In the debate leading to the Hall County Board of Commissioners approving a $90.27 million spending plan for the 2015 fiscal year last month, little attention was given to how much unfunded state mandates would impact the budget.
But behind the scenes, concerns about the fiscal impact of these mandates are growing among county officials as they try to manage the added costs of implementing state laws without state funding.
“I think what has to be addressed is the state legislature has to quit sending home unfunded mandates,” Commissioner Scott Gibbs said. “Eventually, we’re not going to be able to balance the budget.”
Some of the most difficult mandates to handle involve the juvenile court system.
For example, the $85,000 a year the state provides Hall and Dawson counties to run this court is only a small slice of the total annual cost to operate it.
Moreover, children in dependency cases are entitled to a lawyer, as are indigent parents and legal custodians. This comes at the expense of the county.
“Some of this stuff is hard to quantify,” County Administrator Randy Knighton said.
However, the county has identified $150,000 in contingency funds to support the additional costs related to the juvenile court, Knighton said.
“Of course, when a child goes to court you want them to be represented fairly,” said state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. “How much of a mandate that is I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, the cost of housing state inmates with felony convictions in the Hall County Detention Center is only partially subsidized. The remaining costs fall on the county.
But Rogers said the state has raised reimbursement rates for county jails.
Additionally, county officials said, some felony cases have been reduced to misdemeanor charges, creating a backlog of inmates and expenses for the county jail.
There are also new state requirements for monitoring water quality of streams; the state also now requires tax assessment notices be mailed to every parcel owner in the county regardless of whether the assessed value has changed; and the county also supports the state health department.
“It’s not fair if those costs are transferred to us,” Commissioner Craig Lutz said. “Somebody’s going to pay for it.”
Indeed, the state often has to deal with costs being handed down from the federal government.
But when the costs hit the local level, cuts to services or tax increases are put on the table.
“I think the state can help us on some of those items,” Lutz said. “What catches us off guard is those surprise things that pop up. It’s a no-win situation.”
But Rogers said unfunded mandates sometimes go both ways.
“I know that several commissioners will always use the unfunded mandate issue,” he said. “I’ve heard of these unfunded mandates ever since I (took office). I think it’s just a term they like to use, but I’m sure there’s some costs involved.”