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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.
We have reached a critical juncture in determining the future of Hall County, and local residents have to speak up now if they want a role in deciding what the county will become over the next few years.
The budget proposal submitted last week for consideration by county commissioners goes beyond simply reducing expenses to make ends meet and recommends deep, dramatic cuts that will change the quality of life now enjoyed by many who live here.
That elusive "quality of life" issue is often discussed but difficult to pin down, because it is different for everyone. What one person perceives as being essential to a community is seen as a waste of money by someone else. Not everyone wants, nor needs, the same thing when it comes to government service.
Youth and their parents are more likely to see a need for parks than are the elderly; the elderly, as a group, more likely to need emergency medical services than the young. And so it goes for a host of government services, from programs planned at community centers to computer usage in libraries. One person's frill is an essential service for someone else.
And then there are those areas that seem to be the very foundation of government services: public safety, roads and tax collection
So where to draw the lines?
The budget proposal as submitted would close most of the county's libraries, community centers and parks. It would cut ambulances. It would eliminate 102 jobs from the county's payroll, 77 of those currently filled. With additional cuts in every county department, it would eliminate an $11.5 million budget deficit.
It isn't just one year's worth of reduction in services that is the issue, however, but rather yet another year of cuts and reductions. As the county has struggled with dwindling tax revenues in recent years, it already has reduced positions and implemented pay cuts in the form of mandatory furlough days. It already has shuttered offices and reduced operating hours. Those who have to do business with the county already are encountering delays in doing so on some occasions.
This is what serious budget cutting looks like. This proposal goes beyond trimming the fat, the necessary first step in aligning spending with revenues. Now real services and jobs are being sacrificed to close the gap.
The question becomes how much can you cut and still give people what they expect in a thriving, bustling community? And at what point do the cuts threaten any hope of future economic rebound?
Most of those who observe the swinging of the economic pendulum agree that the best way out of such an extended economic dive is through the creation of jobs as a means of bolstering the local economy. Yet how many perspective employers are going to want to bring their businesses and employees to a county without the amenities most come to expect from counties with a secure financial base?
In the fight for jobs, if Hall is in competition with surrounding counties that provide a better quality of life for their residents, will new businesses locate here?
To partially offset the potential deficit without such dramatic cuts in services, Commission Chairman Tom Oliver has proposed a modest tax increase that would impact most residents by $100 or so a year. Even with the increase, cuts would have to be made.
As always, there are some in elected office who opposed the idea of tax increases no matter what, and pledge to always vote against any tax hike. That is an unrealistic approach to governing, as George H.W. Bush infamously discovered after telling the American people to, "read my lips, no new taxes," only to discover it was a promise he couldn't keep as president.
There are those who want to portray the county's current plight as the inevitable end result of spending too much in years past, when times were good, on programs that are difficult to sustain now. Maybe so, but those decisions helped make the county what it is today and have provided a quality of life that many have found to be rewarding.
There are also those who think every public spending problem can be resolved but a reduction in manpower. But there is just so much you can do in cutting positions without also eliminating services, and employees of the county have borne the brunt of cutbacks in recent years. There will always be those positions that can be identified as superfluous by some, but a more rational approach with some common sense dictates that there are limits to how many positions you can cut and still do the job.
Are there positions the county can afford to lose without having a dramatic impact on services provided to the taxpayers? Yes. Are there enough of those to solve existing budget woes and still provide essential services? No.
The people of the county have to let county commissioners know their priorities. What is important to them? What are they willing to pay for? How much? A public hearing scheduled on the budget for Thursday night is the first opportunity to do so in a public session.