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2006 State of the County address

Editor's note: Below is the draft text of Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister's state of the county address. It has been edited for style and grammar. Also, today's Bill O'Reilly column appears on page 9A. Kathleen Parker's regular column will appear at a later date.

Many of the key leaders in county government are here today, including Jock Connell, our outstanding county administrator, as well as the county's department directors and several judges and other elected officials. I hope you will take some time to speak with any of us about specific concerns that may be on your mind.

I want to recognize, in particular, my fellow commissioners: Lorraine Green, Bert Nasuti, Mike Beaudreau, and Kevin Kenerly. Three of the five of us were new to the Board at this time last year, but we still hit the ground running.

I believe we've worked well together -- with each other and with our excellent staff -- to keep the county moving forward.

During my campaign I talked a lot about revitalization, public safety, growth management and transportation. My colleagues shared many of the same goals.

We made great strides in these areas -- and more -- despite the expected transition period and unexpected challenges that confronted us later in the year.

We have charted our course and set some new directions, which I'll talk more about later in my remarks.

First, I'd like to take a few moments to review the highlights of what our county government accomplished in 2005.

Last year came with a few surprises -- including an influx of thousands of people whose homes along the Gulf coast were destroyed by Mother Nature.

As most of you know, the county had purchased the old Wal-Mart building in Lawrenceville just a few months earlier. Because it was empty, we were able to quickly convert it for use by the Red Cross and many other agencies as a one-stop recovery assistance center. More than 10,000 cases were opened there in just a few weeks of operation.

I'm proud of the way our entire county responded to this critical and totally unexpected need, and of the many ways we're continuing to welcome these new residents into our community.

Whether they're Katrina victims or business owners looking to relocate their operations -- people are attracted to the quality of life they find here in Gwinnett.

We have excellent housing options, schools, parks and libraries. We have a top-notch transportation system and our water system is expanding to meet projected needs for the next 50 years.

And we now have another jewel to brag about -- Georgia Gwinnett College, our new four-year college that will need support from all of us as they move forward.

Construction expands

services

New facilities are appearing all over.

In just a few weeks, we'll open a new building for the Recorder's and Juvenile Courts, which will help relieve the crowded conditions at GJAC. And last summer, we cut the ribbons for a new complex near the Mall of Georgia that includes a new north police precinct, a new fire station, and a new tag office.

We broke ground for:

•A new police training facility,

•A new police precinct in Dacula,

•A new tag office and fire station in Snellville,

•A new library in Grayson,

•An aquatic center in Bethesda Park,

•And 37 road construction projects -- to name just a few

These capital improvements and many others are funded by the sales tax.

Results of voter-approved SPLOST programs are evident all around us.

Ten traffic and sidewalk projects completed last year are improving safety in school zones. Ten other pedestrian-safety projects, eight roadway realignments, five improved intersections, and two new bridges were also completed in 2005.

Gwinnett Transit is still growing

In fact, we had to make some changes to reduce overcrowding on the popular express service to downtown Atlanta. An average of about 1,700 people use that service daily, while more than 4,600 riders use our local buses.

I'm also serving on a steering committee at the Atlanta Regional Commission to help coordinate public transportation in the metro Atlanta area.

One campaign issue near and dear to my heart -- and perhaps even more critical than ever -- is the revitalization of older, previously-developed areas of the county.

As a homeowner and former mayor of Lilburn, I strongly believe that we cannot let these areas decay as we work to meet the demands of new growth on the outer edges of Gwinnett.

Everyone who owns property has a stake in maintaining the value of that investment.

And everyone who lives here -- whether they own property or not -- has a stake in preserving and improving the quality-of-life that makes this a more desirable place to put down roots and raise a family.

That's why we must nourish the older parts of the county -- with new infrastructure, new investments, and new vitality -- so that those areas don't become neglected and rundown.

Last spring, we launched Operation Fixing Broken Windows. This program enforces existing county ordinances covering everything from property maintenance to littering and from occupancy limits to illegal parking.

This year, we'll hire five new police officers devoted full time to this important revitalization effort.

Other steps include investing in the infrastructure of older parts of the county.

We're doing our part by upgrading and modernizing water and sewer facilities, making road improvements, building new parks, and investing in existing parks to keep these areas attractive and desirable.

By making these public investments, we hope to stimulate additional private investments.

Another tool that we're using is our ability to influence development through land-use planning and zoning laws.

Last year, the Board voted to allow high-rise buildings and mixed-use developments in major activity centers in and around the 85 corridor.

This could be an economic shot in the arm to keep these areas vibrant and vital.

Government continues

to serve

And before we take a look ahead, I'd like to invite you to take a look at some of the highlights of the past year.

Folks, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Gwinnett County government takes on a huge challenge every day providing services to more than 725,000 residents across 437 square miles.

County government must, and will, efficiently and effectively provide a multitude of services for a resident population that's still adding thousands of people every year.

And your government will continue to meet the new needs of this dynamic community as they arise.

In many ways, Gwinnett has matured. Much of the county has now been developed or preserved as greenspace. Although there's still room for new growth, our challenges and opportunities are changing.

We're now settling into a more established lifestyle and working to improve and maintain what we've already achieved.

Of course, the county must also respond to new growth in northern and eastern Gwinnett, where the influx of new residents is creating needs for improved roads, water and sewer service, and police and fire protection.

We're making these investments, and we're also looking at new ways to find the revenue to help pay for them.

Investments in basic infrastructure not only enhance and protect the economic value of an area, but they also create jobs.

Last November, the commissioners, administrative officers and department heads spent several days looking at the 'big picture' as we planned our budget for this year, and updated our long-range plans for capital projects.

We realize that we need to think beyond bricks and mortar.

Yes -- we need to expand the jail, but then we need to hire more sheriff's deputies to run it.

Yes -- we all want more police protection on the streets, but recruiting and hiring new officers is only part of the total cost. New officers will need patrol cars, uniforms, equipment, and training.

That way of looking at expenditures is guiding our actions as we plan for this new year and beyond, because we're committed to a safer Gwinnett and we're equally committed to an affordable Gwinnett.

Looking to the future

To talk about the state of the county, we have to talk about our future.

So, let's look ahead as far down the road as we can see, to get an idea of where we're going, and how soon we might get there.

To do that, we need to look at trends: What's happening around us? What's changing? And how are we responding to those changes?

First of all, it's no secret that our people, our demographics, are changing. We have much more diversity in our population today than we've ever had. International food, languages, and culture are becoming much more common.

Instead of a mostly white, suburban, bedroom community, Gwinnett County is now more like the great American 'melting pot' where many cultures mix and swirl together to make an aggregate that's stronger than any of its individual components.

Must adapt to diversity

At the county, our health and human services sections are working to assimilate our foreign-born residents and help them understand both the blessings and the responsibilities of living in America.

We're providing language training for county employees, and making translators and interpreters available to assist with essential government services.

I hope that your businesses, too, are finding ways to serve this rapidly growing portion of our general public.

Upgrades needed

A second major change is that our infrastructure is showing signs of age. Facilities built in the '60s, '70s, and even the '80s are getting old. Small sewage plants and older pipelines are inadequate and inefficient by today's standards.

In the last decade alone, we've already invested over a billion dollars to upgrade our existing water and sewer systems.

And our long-range plans call for investing more over the next few years.

For example, the Upper Chattahoochee Tunnel that we completed last year at a cost of $15 million allows us to shut down an aging, inadequate sewage treatment plant at Sugar Hill.

We also opened a new $3 million raw water distribution structure and upgraded a 48-inch water main in the Duluth area.

Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River continue to be of vital importance to our county -- not only for recreation but also for the crucial role they play in our water system.

We take millions of gallons of raw water -- or about 115 gallons per person every day -- from Lake Lanier to be filtered and processed for our water supply. But as our water needs continue to grow, there are fears of less water for all the folks downstream.

And that prospect prompted the ongoing 'water wars' between Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

Because of Gwinnett's geography, our older wastewater treatment plants mostly discharge into streams that flow to the Atlantic, rather than to the Chattahoochee, which flows to the Gulf coast.

So our long-range plans call for returning much more of the water we use to its source, the Chattahoochee, by way of Lake Lanier.

As many of you know, there was strong opposition to our plan from the Lake Lanier Association. But last spring, we reached an understanding with them, and they agreed to drop their protest. And we agreed to meet even more stringent, and expensive, standards for the ultra-clean wastewater from our state-of-the-art water reclamation plant.

We also agreed to move the discharge point to a deeper part of the lake, near the dam, where its thermal impact will be minimized.

Once our current thermal studies are complete, we expect the EPD to issue our discharge permit.

I want to point out that state Rep. John Heard deserves much of the credit for his assistance in bringing the parties together to craft this agreement.

We'll continue to be good stewards of this precious natural resource.

Drainage issues and stormwater management have also become big challenges as environmental regulations get tougher, and more land is developed.

The cost of complying with new state and federal water-quality laws is intensive -- in terms of both capital and paperwork.

And heavy rains cause flooding that gets worse when old, galvanized drainage pipes fail. Hard surfaces such as concrete and asphalt prevent water from absorbing slowly into the water table.

Last year, we investigated more than 3,500 service requests dealing with drainage issues and flooding.

That's why we have created a new stormwater utility and why you'll see a new fee on your property tax bill this summer.

The money it raises will help us fix a large backlog of drainage problems, replace failed drain pipes, and take steps to protect the water quality in our streams and rivers.

Last year, we completed 36 major drainage construction projects. The largest was upgrading the dam at Collins Hill Park at a cost of $2 million.

We also upgraded our floodplain maps -- a move that can lower the costs of flood insurance for many Gwinnett properties.

Transportation issues

Moving on to transportation issues, we have the ongoing problem of making roads and bridges wide enough to handle increasing traffic, improving safety and alignment at intersections and working to provide transportation alternatives.

We completed 12 'quick fix' projects in 2005 to keep traffic moving at various locations and we're installing new 'intelligent transportation systems' to monitor and control traffic flow in real time.

We resurfaced 120 miles of roads last year, and signed contracts for $43 million worth of transportation construction projects. This 46 percent increase over 2004 demonstrates the Board's commitment to moving transportation projects forward faster.

This will be the year that construction on the interchange at 85 and 316 finally gets started. Things will be torn up for at least the next three years, but in the end, we will have a much safer and more efficient interchange.

Parks and greenspace

Voters have also said they want more and better parks and libraries, so we're responding to those needs as well.

In older areas of the county, we're building smaller, mostly passive, community parks with features like fenced areas where dogs can run off leash.

In the long run, we're planning to use greenways and bicycle paths to connect as many activity centers as possible.

Last year, we partnered with the city of Lilburn to take over the management and renovation of Lion's Club Park. This illustrates just one of the many ways in which we're working with the 15 cities in Gwinnett to improve services to all our residents.

Costs rising

We're dealing with many underlying economic trends as well. Like many of you, we find that the cost of running our 'business' is rising.

Health care and fuel costs are much bigger line items today than they used to be, and that trend seems likely to continue. The rising cost of health care places a burden on the private and public sectors alike -- General Motors and the state of Georgia are two good examples.

It's also not news to this audience that construction costs are going up, too, and we're all having to pay more for essential building materials.

Also like many of your businesses, we find that our available office space is getting cramped, and we're working to find creative ways to make better use of what we have.

The new Recorder's and Juvenile Court building gives us some temporary relief, but we'll need more courtrooms and more office space in the very near future. We haven't come to any conclusions just yet, but the lowest estimate I've seen for a long-range solution to our space shortage is close to $80 million.

The need for increased security -- especially in and around courtrooms -- became more apparent early last year in Fulton County and elsewhere. We responded by installing phase one of a plan to improve security at the Justice and Administration Center. New cameras and screening procedures are now in place, and more security improvements are on the way.

We're also updating the airport master plan with an eye toward improving security there, and we added security attendants at the Discover Mills and 985 park-and-ride lots.

Infrastructure

improvments

We're opening a new $75 million jail expansion -- more than 1,400 new beds -- and already it's not enough. Voters approved a bond issue to pay for this expansion, but I'm concerned about how we'll pay for the next one.

A year ago, I told this audience that I wanted to make our public safety salaries more competitive and to improve public safety in general.

I'm pleased to report today that we have hired more new officers in the past year than ever in Gwinnett's history -- more officers than currently work for the cities of Lilburn, Loganville and Norcross combined. And this year, we'll spend $6 million more than last year to provide salaries and equipment for those new officers.

We will soon open a new building for the East police precinct in Dacula, and we're planning another new precinct in Grayson, plus a stronger police presence in the Peachtree Corners area.

Other challenges include the need to expand and improve the Gwinnett Hospital System. A thriving, quality hospital system is a critical part of our success as a community.

Meeting challenges

Somehow we have to meet all these needs despite the fact that the cost to provide services is outpacing any growth in revenue.

Gwinnett County government has become a big business. Our total budget is larger than that of some entire states. We're continuing the same, conservative financial management that has consistently earned top, Triple-A credit ratings for Gwinnett County.

And that saves our residents millions of dollars in construction financing costs.

With more than 4,500 employees, we're the second largest employer in the county.

Like most big businesses, we're learning to use new technologies to work smarter and more efficiently. New computer systems are improving our responsiveness, speeding our operations, and providing increased access to government services over the Internet.

That's not the only way we're improving the way we do business.

We studied the fleet management system for possible efficiency gains last year. And we will study other county functions this year not only to reduce costs, but to improve government services.

We're examining county policies and procedures to see what else we can do to help attract the right kinds of businesses to Gwinnett -- those with high-paying skilled jobs and clean, non-polluting operations.

We must never forget that much of our success depends on the availability of good jobs.

We need a balanced environment where people can live, work and play without having to leave Gwinnett.

More jobs also mean that we can rebalance the tax base between residential and commercial properties. And frankly, it costs more to provide government services for residential properties than it does for commercial.

So a balanced mix is a good thing for all of us, and that's why we're committed to bringing more jobs to Gwinnett.

I'm proud to say that this year, we'll add an office in county government dedicated to economic development. Of course, we'll continue to partner with the Chamber of Commerce. But our new office will give the Chamber a new tool to help bring new businesses, new jobs, and new dollars into the county.

2006 will be an exciting year. We will open many new county facilities, including:

•the Environmental and Heritage Center,

•a 40-million gallon per day expansion of our water reclamation facility,

•new libraries at Dacula and Grayson,

•new fire stations in Norcross, Snellville and Sugar Hill,

•a new tag office in Snellville,

•a new police training facility,

•a new East Precinct in Dacula,

•and a satellite precinct in Peachtree Corners.

We want to be proactive in shaping the kind of community we all want -- a community where people are safe and comfortable. A community where everyone is free to find and experience success for themselves. A community where people can live, work, and play without having to spend hours in the car every day.

We must keep putting the right pieces in place to continue our success.

This is the challenge for your local government.

And it's a challenge that my fellow commissioners and I look forward to meeting this year and for many years to come.

I see a bright future for Gwinnett County, despite the many challenges that we must overcome together.

Government can never solve all the problems. We need your help, your advice, your vision, your investments, your time, your talents, and above all -- your dedication to building a better Gwinnett County, for our children and our grandchildren. We need your active and vocal support for all our initiatives, whether it's for the sales tax renewal in 2008 or a stormwater utility this year.

Water and sewer, courts and jails, roads and bridges -- all of these, and so much more, are the responsibility of county government -- your government -- we the people. We must all work together to build and maintain the solid infrastructure that supports us all. This truly is an exciting time to live in Gwinnett County. I believe I can speak for all of us at the county government in saying that we're pleased and honored to serve the residents of this great county.