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Chamber talk tackles trying times
Officials address economic pinch
Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse talks during the State of the Community Luncheon. - photo by Jennifer Sami
Ann Crow spoke for most local officials when she addressed the trying financial times Thursday.

“I would like to sit here and tell you everything in our school system is wonderful," said Crow, who chairs Forsyth County's school board. "... But the reality is we’re short funds, just like everybody who runs a business and every government entity across the county.”

Crow's remarks came during the fourth annual State of the Community Address, which featured representatives from Cumming and the county school system and government.

The event, a joint effort between the Council for Quality Growth and the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, was held at the Polo Fields Golf & Country Club.

Nearly 140 people attended, including Scott Hanlon with Bader & Associates Realty.

“In the real estate business, it helps to know what’s been accomplished and where the county and city are going,” Hanlon said. “Here you get it all at one place versus having to go to two or three different meetings.”

James McCoy, president of the chamber, said the county’s strong leadership is “what will help see us through” the tough times.

“We will pull out of this ahead of the rest of metro Atlanta and I believe we are ahead of the rest of the country,” McCoy said. “I attribute a lot of that to the great leadership that’s in this room today.”

The school district is facing a $5 million shortfall. Still, its goals haven’t changed. Crow said officials continue working to increase SAT scores and offer unique programming and opportunities for students.

Like the school system, county government is facing challenges.

“We have all certainly been impacted by the economic uncertainties and we have all experienced fiscal challenges unlike never before,” said Charles Laughinghouse, chairman of the county commission.

“Sales tax collections have dropped substantially ... we suffer not only in our capital projects, but also in our maintenance and operations budget as we go forward.”

Laughinghouse said the goal is to maintain the county’s millage rate, which is among the lowest in the metro Atlanta area.  

In the past year, 63 miles of road have been resurfaced through a 1-cent sales tax known as SPLOST VI. Another 50 miles are slated for resurfacing this year, he said.

Laughinghouse said water continues to be an important issue for the county. Among ideas discussed during a retreat earlier this year, were relying on sources other than Lake Lanier, including wells, small reservoirs and possibly the Chattahoochee River.

Balancing the county’s budget during tough economic times has come with difficult decisions, Laughinghouse said.

“Our budget for this year is $84.1 million and in order to accomplish that, there are a number of positions that were frozen,’” he said. “In addition, we undertook something none of us ever want to have to do and that was to authorize the layoffs of 26 county employees.”

Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt said the city’s 2007 budget was $30 million. Since then, the city has cut 15 percent each year.

“Today our total budget is a little bit over $20 million,” he said. “We’ve been able to cut back our budget without getting rid of any employees. All of our city employees are still at work.”

Among progress for the year, Gravitt talked about bringing an MBA program to the city through a joint effort with North Georgia College & State University. The program is operating out of the top floor city hall.

Gravitt said the goal is to build a new campus on Pilgrim Mill Road, which also will be home to a National Guard armory and the city’s aquatic center.

The mayor also talked about the city’s water improvement projects over the past year, including a $30 million wastewater treatment facility.

“We feel like the need for the water is taken care of, at least for the next 25 years ... and maybe longer, depending on the growth,” he said.

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