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County budget hearings conclude
budget staged 005

County budget hearings wrapped up last week with the final departments presenting budget requests for the 2019 fiscal year, which starts Jan. 1.

Over the past two weeks, department heads have presented around $26.8 million in general fund requests, with $2.4 million additional in personnel requests and $7.8 million additional in capital requests.

The board of commissioners set a millage rate last week that will result in a $1.3 million increase in property tax collections over last year ($11.5 million total), and combined with a $1 million increase in LOST revenue ($7.6 million total), as well as other taxes and income, the board will have an estimated $26.2 million in total revenue to use along with fund balance money to cover costs.

Commissioners will have to whittle down the requests so that they retain between 15 and 20 percent of fund balance.

Several capital requests can be funded through current and future SPLOST as well as through grants, the current capital fund balance left over from last year, money in the vehicle replacement fund and other sources. Some of the requests will also need to be bid out or will come in under the estimated costs.

“Usually in the budget process you will see a quote, regardless of where they got it from, and they don’t usually wind up being that same number,” Commission Chairman Billy Thurmond said Aug. 16. “Having done budgets for 30 years, you want a quote that ends up being higher than what it winds up costing you.”

The board is also not likely to approve all 42 of the new positions and $50,000 in salary increases requested by department heads, especially as the board has refused in the past to give any one department or person for a raise outside of the two percent across-the-board raise the board has approved the past two years.

Presenting on Aug. 15 was the senior center, planning and development and fire and EMS.

Senior Center Director Dawn Pruett asked for a $4,268 increase over her 2018 budget.

Much of Pruett’s work and programs are grant-funded, including transit, food and some salaries.

Pruett requested a new full-time respite care position for when the Pauline Ivey senior center is built.

She said that person would also serve roles as custodian and conduct maintenance and Meals on Wheels delivery, and the salary would be partially funded by a Legacy Link grant.

“We haven’t had any new positions since 2008,” Pruett said.

Pruett said she is excited to implement a respite care and dementia program in the new building. She said the center has been dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s in long standing clients, and that at least three or four days a week, the person in this new position would sit with the clients to give caretakers a break.

“I just think that we owe it to our seniors in the community if we can keep them there, around their friends that they’ve been going to, until it gets out of hand,” she said.

Pruett also asked for $10,000 to replace old HVAC units and $30,000 for a new vehicle.

Following Pruett, Planning and Development Director Jason Streetman asked for a part time building inspector, a part time front desk clerk and a new role of co-compliance alcohol license administrator.

The administrator position would be to fill the void left when Robbie Irvin, who worked for the county for 19 years serving most recently as storm water and plans review manager, resigned to work for the city of Dawsonville as planning director there. County Manager David Headley transferred the vacant position to the public works department, and Streetman asked for that position back in his department.

“The problem is they’ve got 100 percent of the position and only about 35 percent of the work,” Streetman said. “The remaining 65 percent of what (Irvin) did, the plans review, the plans coordination, the zoning stipulation follow up, sign permits, alcohol licenses and permits, code enforcement assistance, animal control assistance, all of those things that he did to help out, that’s still some of the responsibilities of our department.”

Where the soil erosion duties were in the old position, the revamped position would take on alcohol licensing responsibilities.

The part time front desk clerk would help cover lunchtimes, which Streetman said are the busiest time of day as far as walk-ins.

“You have a lot of hard working employees, I think many of them feel like they’re putting a burden on their coworkers when they leave to go to lunch and there is four people in line to be helped,” Streetman said.

He also asked for two vehicles in the marshals’ office and three vehicles for planning and development, as well as for funds to move the department’s computer systems to a cloud-based system.

Emergency Services Director Danny Thompson asked for six new firefighter/EMTs, three new firefighter/paramedics and a training captain, all full time positions, totaling nearly $600,000. He also asked for $30,500 for professional services for annual physicals for his employees to be preventative against deaths due to cancer and heart attacks.

Firefighters in America are 250 percent more likely to develop cancer, and 70 percent of firefighters will develop cancer, Thompson said.

Additional funding requests include moving computer systems to a cloud-based version, retrofitting stations 1 and 2 to be more energy efficient and providing for maintenance on the burn building, which allows for on-site training of firefighters.

He also asked for several trucks, including a ladder truck, a fast attack engine, a new fire engine, new ambulance and vehicles for his staff, along with the planned land purchase for fire station 9 and the engine that will need to be funded to go with it. Many of his requests can be funded through SPLOST.

Presenting on Aug. 16 was fleet, No One Alone, the Department of Family and Children Services, the humane society, CASA and the district attorney.

Shannon Harben, fleet maintenance director, said his number one request was a full time administrative assistant. He asked to have Kara Wilkins, who is currently a receptionist in the county administrative office, moved out to the fleet facility.

The county is also in the process of building a new fleet maintenance building, where Wilkins could have an even larger role including inventory management.

“There’s so much more she could do if she were out there with us, but we’re out on Hwy. 53 and she's in the (courthouse),” Harben said. 

No One Alone, or NOA, a domestic violence shelter serving Dawson and Lumpkin counties, asked for a $2,500 increase due to an increase in demand for services. DFCS asked for the same amount of money as last year, while the humane society asked for $8,000 to increase the pay for employees at the shelter, who currently earn between $8.75 and $12 an hour.

The Hall and Dawson County CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate Program, asked for a $4,000 increase. The nonprofit organization provides legal advocacy for juveniles in the court system, and has a wait list currently due to lack of volunteers.

The extra funds would help the organization to advertise and increase recruitment of Dawson County-specific volunteers.

The last to present, District Attorney Lee Darragh asked for a $74 increase from what his department was allocated last year, as well as $24,000 in salary increases and a capital request for one vehicle at $30,000.

The final presentations last Wednesday and Thursday wrapped up a long process for the board, but were a process that Thurmond said was necessary to maintain transparency in how taxpayer money is used.

“It makes it less difficult to try to explain...people have a hard time understanding sometimes. This gives them that fair opportunity to hear and see what people are asking for,” Thurmond said to the board after the final hearing. “When I go out and represent you...and I say we had a $2.4 million personnel request, they’ve seen that, you’ve seen that.”

Former Chairman Mike Berg used to meet with the department heads and finance department without the rest of the commissioners and then present his budget to the board during a regular meeting.

“I always used to say this to the former chairman. The way they had it set up, the way it's in the enabling legislation, he could do it the way he did it, but it made it difficult for y'all as commissioners in my opinion because you only got the watered down version of what was asked for,” Thurmond said. “This way you can make an educated judgement on how you want to vote when it comes time to vote.”

Tim Satterfield, who is slated to take over the District 3 seat in January, also spoke after the final hearing and said he wanted to commend the chairman and the board for their transparency.

“I wish more folks was here,” he said. “It's good to put everything out to show the money that’s coming in and the money coming out. I just commend the department heads overall, there’s a lot of cuts and they’re trying to watch the money, but it's caught up with us.”