It took two meetings June 17, but the Habersham County Commission finalized and passed its Fiscal Year 2013- 14 budget.
The Habersham County Commission essentially decided at a June 17 work session to spare cutting the county’s transit system from the county’s FY 2013-14 budget. A final decision was slated for the commission’s June 17 regular monthly meeting, which followed the work session.
Commission Chairman Chad Henderson said he wanted to “point out” the commission “adopts a budget first, based on priorities of a county.” It is later that the commission “adjusts the millage rate, based on the budget,” Henderson said.
The final budget number was $22,513,385, as reported by Habersham County Manager Janeann Allison, which reflects a tax increase.
Henderson noted the tax assessor’s office has not yet completed its review of the property digest, but there is an estimated 2-3 percent decrease in the value.
Property taxes are the primary revenue source for county government.
The revised budget commissioners considered at the work session included additional revenue to be generated by a proposed approximately 1 mill increase in property taxes.
The decreasing tax digest value also means each mill assessed generates less revenue, Henderson said. While in the past 1 mill produced $1 million, the decline in tax digest value means a mill will produce $541,000 in revenue.
The revised budget had “expenditure cuts along with revenue increases,” Henderson said.
Henderson noted county expenses increased even as revenue dropped. Just a few years ago, gasoline was “$1.72 a gallon; now it’s $3.53 a gallon,” Henderson said. “Asphalt was $20,000 a road mile, now it’s at $70,000 a road mile.”
At public budget hearings June 11 and 13, “citizens told us ‘guys, you’ve got to do a combination of both’” [budget cuts and tax increase], said Commissioner Sonny James.
The revised budget commissioners reviewed dropped consideration of budget cuts to the recreation department, which would have closed the pools at the Ruby C. Fulbright Aquatic Center. Commissioners also dropped consideration of funding cuts to county libraries, which would have required limited operating hours at the two branches.
Discussion of cutting a position in the sheriff’s office, previously funded by a grant, was also taken off the table after commissioners learned a family violence/child abuse investigator’s position was at stake.
“The pools were never taken out of the budget,” Henderson said. “The libraries were never taken out of the budget.”
Henderson explained commissioners had been discussing budget line items where expenses could be cut, including transit, libraries, recreation and the sheriff’s office. While transit had been cut in other working versions of the budget, recreation and library expenses had speculatively been juggled to determine if expenses could be cut and a property tax increase prevented.
Opinions and concerns expressed at public hearings last week were taken into consideration by commissioners in preparing the final working version of the budget. The hearings produced an outpouring of support for keeping pools open and maintaining the current level of library services. Commissioners were also urged to continue funding the transit system, because users had few other transportation options.
Alluding to the hearings, Henderson said “the experience has been very educational. It was a very civil engagement between the people and their government.” The forums let the public know “we are trying our best to listen to the people,” Henderson said.
While the county’s transit system, which is also funded by the federal government and costs the county $17,900 annually, was placed back in the budget, James lamented government having to provide the service.
“There are so many churches with vans that sit useless five out of seven days of the week,” James said, advocating a mission outreach into the community. “That’s what used to happen in this county,” he said.
“Can we have a set route and times, instead of using it like a taxi?” asked Commissioner Natalie Crawford. “Maybe operate it in a more efficient way?
“Something has got to be done,” James said. “People expect government to be everything.”
Referring to the public hearings, “the main thing I heard was ‘do everything as efficiently as we can,’” Henderson said.
“I was extremely touched by some of the pleas we heard [about the transit system],” said Commissioner Andrea Harper. “As of right now I don’t think we can abandon those people.”
There were no public comments about the proposed budget during a public hearing at the commission’s regular meeting.
“We have sweated over this budget line by line,” Harper said at the second meeting. People [attending public hearings] were surprised by what the county was required to fund and what the county did not have to fund, but was providing the service, Harper said.
“It’s not a perfect budget,” Harper said. “It’s a workable budget.”
“We have struggled” in producing the budget, James said. “We have cut a lot of expenses. We have increased revenue.”
There was no real discussion of the budget during the regular monthly meeting, including no mention of the estimated 1 mill property tax increase.
Commissioners approved the budget 4-1, as amended at its work session, with Henderson voting against.
“I have no problem with the budget,” Henderson said, when asked about the dissenting vote after the meeting. He took exception with a revenue figure of $341,000 from vehicle title tax assessments, saying he was not sure the amount was accurate. He was afraid the revenue figure had been accounted for twice. “I definitely want to find out if that is the case,” Henderson said.
“I think we could have waited to approve the budget,” Henderson said.
“I’m not 100 percent comfortable with that number,” Allison told commissioners during the work session. “That does make me a little nervous.”
In other budget-related discussion, commissioners:
• Heard $10,000 in revenue had been added for fees to be charged insurance companies for fire department response to alarms;
• Tentatively approved an additional $3,000 for the Habersham County Senior Center, which lost $7,000 in funding due to sequestration budget cuts in the federal government. While $5,000 was sought, “I would suggest we put in $3,000,” said Commissioner Ed Nichols, with Crawford and James echoing support;
• Generally discussed increasing fees for recreation department activities to increase revenue.