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Old, new issues at the heart of Sugar Hill elections

SUGAR HILL - Four years ago, people wanted to get rid of Sugar Hill.

They petitioned for the government to be disbanded and came fairly close.

But the leaders of the county's fourth-largest city were able to hold on and ride out the storm.

In the 2005 election cycle, those efforts to dissolve the city are once again emerging, with a leader of the movement running for a city council seat.

For some of Sugar Hill's newest politicos, the efforts to dissolve the city are simply an old tale, but others are worried the old issue will return.

Mayoral race

Gary Pirkle is the lone candidate on the Nov. 8 ballot who was in office when dissolving came up.

He was a council member at the time, facing criticism over a spike in gas prices.

This winter, just in time for the election, economists are forecasting a huge spike in gas prices, but Pirkle said the new rate system he put into place could cushion the blow.

After the last spike, the city established a higher base rate with a lower per-unit amount so people wouldn't face huge winter bills.

"We're hoping it's not a really cold winter," he said.

When he took over the mayor's office, the city was about $2.5 million in debt.

"There were times when we weren't sure we had enough money to pay the bills," he said.

He made some cuts and sold some city-owned land and turned the budget situation around. Now the city has a large reserve.

It was Pirkle's proudest accomplishment, not a flashy move, one that came about quietly, just like Pirkle's personality.

He's conservative, introverted. His opponent, Councilman Ron Johnson, is outspoken and fast-moving.

For years on the council, the two have clashed over issues from taxes to public safety.

But both are interested in bringing in more business and improving city services.

Johnson picked Sugar

Hill as his retirement community.

The former police officer from New York said he never thought about politics before he got a letter from the dissolved Sugar Hill movement.

Johnson, though, wanted to save the city, and he ran for council to try to help.

"We can actually lower taxes and bring services to the city," Johnson said.

The biggest part of his platform is drawing businesses to tip the tax scales from an almost entirely residential tax base. He even convinced his alma mater Cambridge College to set up a Sugar Hill campus.

He wants to lower gas bills and get a company to clean up a closed city landfill.

In the past, Johnson was known for his desire to set up a Sugar Hill police department, but he's scrapped that idea in favor of increasing patrols of off-duty Gwinnett officers.

Pirkle agrees - he believes the county officers can do the job, but a city force would be too costly.

He's also interested in improving city recreation, and, wherever Pirkle goes, he's known to bring up the cross-county connector, a proposed road from Sugar Hill to Lawrenceville that would create a loop with Sugarloaf Parkway.

"I think that's big for us. Highway 20's being addressed, but that only deals with part of the problem," Pirkle said of Sugar Hill traffic. "If we have the cross-county connector, that gets us east. It gets us to (Interstate) 985, (Interstate) 85 and (Ga. Highway) 316. It gets you there without the congestion."

Council Post 4

When it comes to the dissolving saga, Gary Webster is the only candidate who actually worked in favor of doing away with the city.

Webster said he wasn't passionate about the movement but did lend his name to the organizers.

"We just wanted to send a message," he said.

Mayor of the city in the mid-1990s, Webster said he doesn't want to be a career politician but he wants to help the city.

"That four years was a tough four years," he said. Now, though, "we need a changing of the guard to protect the citizens. We need to give citizens more for their money."

Webster wants to get sewer service on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and possibly arrange for free garbage pick-up for residents.

Nick Thompson, a 31-year-old real estate broker, said he's running his race instead of worrying about Webster.

As a founding member of the city's Downtown Development Authority, Thompson said he is most interested in seeing the downtown plan completed.

That means creating a streetscape along Broad Street and encouraging businesses to locate there.

"Once we start doing the street, some of the people in Duluth or Snellville or Suwanee, maybe we'll catch their eye," he said. "The downtown is huge for me. Us successfully completing that will create an economic engine."

Thompson is also interested in connecting the city's parks and increasing the commercial tax base.

Council Post 5

With Johnson running for mayor, three political newcomers are competing for his council spot - Brent Dowdle, Mike Sullivan and Rosanna Teta.

Mike Sullivan was a newcomer to Sugar Hill when the talk of dissolving came up.

He didn't get involved back then, but he said he's glad the city survived.

Sullivan said he got into the race because he was concerned the city would increase housing density.

"Right now Sugar Hill is having some growing pains, and that is going to get worse the closer we are going to stack people," Sullivan said. "It's going to impact our roads and our schools."

He's hoping to bring commercial development to Peachtree Industrial but wants to slow down the city's residential growth.

"I don't want to stop the growth. The growth is going to happen, but I don't want an area zoned for 100 homes to become 200 homes," he said.

He wants to strengthen community between the city and the Board of Education.

Teta is also interested in that.

The mother of three has addressed the Gwinnett School Board recently and wants to work to get her son out of a trailer.

"We moved there because of the great school system. All of the residents are interested in what's going on with the schools," she said.

The financial analyst said she wants to get a look into the city's books and find out their plans for the budget surplus as well as improving public safety and recreation for kids and seniors.

"I have three kids, and I live in Sugar Hill. I want this. I plan on being here a long time, and I'd like to have it for my children," she said.

Dowdle is more interested in the business angle for the city.

He wants to increase the city's commercial tax base and draw more businesses and more jobs to the community.

At the same time, he wants to widen and improve streets and add sidewalks.

"My vision for Sugar Hill is to continue to foster a suburban community focused on families and family values - a place where young and old can walk, bike and play together, a place where we can work competitively and spend less time in traffic, an esthetically pleasing community with a balance of housing, businesses and greenspaces," he said.