Hall County Commissioners have a unified agenda, common purpose, positive outlook on our ability to work together and a productive and competent staff working for the betterment of Hall County. As we look to the future, a number of ongoing projects will require careful budgeting and close monitoring.
Despite the national economic slowdown, Hall County has maintained high levels of service at reasonable cost. Because of the slowdown, however, Local Option Sales Tax collections have been flat for the past 24 months. In FY 2003, collections will be $500,000 dollars below projections. Cutbacks in state funding have reduced the scope of several projects. We are facing critical shortages in state assistance for indigent defense, inmate housing and road repaving.
Funding Streams to Meet Needs
We expect to soon pass an Impact Fee ordinance to partially offset the increasing demand for services caused by growth. It may be wise to use revenue-anticipation bonds for capital to meet some essential needs, such as water and sewer service expansion, since debt service on that borrowed money is an impact-fee-qualified expenditure. We must also build voter support to extend the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in March 2004. SPLOST-funded projects benefit everyone in Hall County – half the cost of operating fire stations is spent on Emergency Medical Services, a countywide service and the library system is a countywide service, but the county pays the full bill. The same is true for the landfill, road projects and to a large extent, the Detention Center.
Built in 1981, the Detention and Law Enforcement Center has a bed capacity of 489. In January, our jail had over 520 inmates. Another 115 were boarded out to other facilities and some 90 more under house arrest for a total of 725. Department personnel are currently on the road at least 1,000 miles a week transporting prisoners from one facility to another. Sheriff Cronic has undertaken studies that make it clear that renovating the current jail is not a cost-effective solution. We are studying options for closing the jail and constructing new facilities to house inmates, office space and a booking facility.
Our two-way radio communications system is 25-year-old VHF technology, which cannot be expanded or increased. Providing a new 700-800 mHz digital system that will allow multiple users on the same channel – firefighters, EMS technicians, Sheriff’s deputies and Enforcement officers – is second in importance only to the need for a new Detention Center.
We have 900 miles of roads in the county system, and 180 miles are already behind schedule for repaving. Expenditures are necessary simply to catch up, much less finance improvements. Repaving 61 miles per year, on a 15-year cycle at a cost of $22 million per year assuming the same level of state participation, will catch us up.
Fire and Emergency Medical Services
Begun in 1970, Hall County’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services have improved dramatically. Now at class 5, we are working toward class 4, which will cut the average homeowner’s fire-insurance costs significantly. Both Station 2 at Quillans Corner and Station 3 at Price Road are in 31-year-old metal buildings, and should be relocated. A new Station on Friendship Road would help cover the Lake Lanier Islands area and the emerging commercial corridor in Buford. Also pressing is the need to replace the 12-lead defibrillators on every fire truck.
We have made a major jump in per-capita books in the last two or three years, but growth is working against us. Our ratio of 1.5 books per resident is far short of the state average of 5. Construction and start-up of new library branches in North and South Hall, expansion of the East Hall branch and special needs library, expansion of the Murrayville branch and renovations to the Gainesville headquarters are projected to cost $19 million.
Demand for recreation facilities exceeds the current capacity, and those needs will increase further as our population grows. Already, our new soccer facility at Allen Creek is utilized at its maximum. We are studying proposals for five new community parks throughout the county, featuring multi-purpose athletic fields, ball courts, trails, playgrounds, meeting facilities and other amenities. Projects are under consideration that would bring our facilities up to the standards in comparable communities, renovating and upgrading existing sites and coordinating new facilities with municipalities and school boards.
Zoning / Comprehensive Land Use Plan
Updating both the CLUP and the Zoning Ordinance Codes are hand-in-glove projects that will address the quantity, quality and location of growth in Hall County. We anticipate considering recommended updates to the Development Code in the fall of this year, and the CLUP in Spring 2004. Our challenge, as commissioners, as businessmen and women, and as concerned citizens, is to direct growth to where the infrastructure exists. We must consider where we can provide services and where we can’t. We must direct growth to those areas where we want it; encourage new and existing high-caliber employers to come here; and work with our educational institutions to make sure we have the local labor force they need.
South Hall wants and needs sewer service to enhance C&I growth, and people want accountability. House Bill 489 negotiations two years ago resulted in turning the matter over to an authority. It is time that we, as elected officials, assume our responsibility. I have asked that we re-address HB 489, and have asked Lula, Flowery Branch, Gainesville and Oakwood to join us in negotiations. It is my sincere wish is that we all work together to resolve the matter in a way that’s fair to all county residents. Our commission further proposes that every municipality in Hall join us in quarterly problem-solving sessions. We invite participation from the smallest to the largest, starting with a blank slate and working together to arrive at a vision for the entire community. With that community vision as the basis, we could then go to organizational plans.
Guest columnist and former businessman Gary Gibbs is Chairman of the Hall County Board of Commissioners. Note: This column is unedited.