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Board OKs $1.7B plan for budget

LAWRENCEVILLE - Commissioners approved Gwinnett County's nearly $1.7 billion budget, but not without giving it a trim first.

Commissioners Lorraine Green and Mike Beaudreau proposed last-minute changes totaling $6 million, including cuts to the library, revitalization efforts and a feasibility study about bringing minor-league baseball to the community.

"It's not raining yet," Green said, referring to the proposed use of $21.8 million of the county's rainy day fund.

With the reductions, the county would instead spend about $15.7 million of the fund, with the majority of that money going to employees raises and a $5 million commitment to the hospital.

Chairman Charles Bannister, who prepared the budget proposal along with county staff, said Tuesday's move amounted to political grandstanding.

"A budget process is not a piece of paper that appears on your desk one day," Bannister said, adding that officials began working on the proposal a year ago.

During the process, at least eight meetings were held, including a public comment hearing, and Bannister said the commissioners did not attend any of those meetings.

"The budget is not a game to be played," he said, adding that some of the reductions were for contingency funds where the price has not yet been determined. Later this year, the money may have to be added back in, he said.

"I'd like to see the budget reduced, but I'm not in it for make-believe."

Green and Beaudreau said they simply wanted to keep a closer eye on public money.

"The chairman can put forth what he wants to, but we're here to approve spending taxpayer funds and not be a rubber stamp," Beaudreau said. "It's a solid budget. It focuses on this board's priorities, which are public safety. ... We're simply slowing the rate of growth, not cutting."

Bannister said he only received the changes about three hours prior to the meeting. He called for a short recess to go over the changes.

During the recess, County Administrator Jock Connell handed a copy of the proposal to Finance Director Lisa Johnsa, who had not been given a copy prior to the meeting. Hours later, officials were running numbers in order to get a final number for the budget.

In the end, the tally was $1,675,049,117 - about 0.46 percent lower than the staff proposal.

The majority of the changes came to reserve funds, including $2 million to housing and medical reserves for county inmates. Green said the money shouldn't be needed because the county recently opened a new jail tower.

The proposal also took $1 million away from the proposed subsidy to the county library. Green asked that the library deplete some of its $4 million reserve fund instead of eating up a portion of the county's fund balance. She said the reduction wasn't related to last year's controversial firing of the library director.

A $1.6 million cut of the general fund's contribution to the capital budget impacts three information technology related projects as well as the contingency fund, which helps sustain projects when construction prices rise, Johnsa said.

Some of the cuts impacted Bannister's initiatives to study efficiency in government, while others reduced Green's own pet projects, including an ethics review, a reduction in management for the police's quality of life unit and incentives for officers to live in high-crime areas.

The county also pushed back until 2008 the addition of a fifth battalion to help manage the expanding fire department.

Green said the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau has agreed to fund the $200,000 study of the baseball possibility, and she honored a request from Bannister to continue paying for a federal lobbyist.

"Saving $6 million of the taxpayers' money isn't political," she said. "It's the right thing to do."

The 2007 budget - which is an increase of just under 1 percent compared to the 2006 spending plan - includes 211 new positions, including 65 new sheriff's deputies, 43 new firefighters and 47 positions in the Police Department, 12 of whom will work on quality of life enforcement.