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State of the County address

Chairman Charles Bannister • January 25, 2007

Thank you. I'm glad to be here. And I'm happy to report that the laryngitis I had at this time last year has gone away! So I hope my optimism about the state of the county in 2007 will come through loud and clear. Thanks to all of you for being here and for your interest in the state of our county.

I also want to give a big thank you to the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and to the Council for Quality Growth for hosting us here at the Marriott again this year. I also want to thank everyone involved with the Partnership Gwinnett effort to envision what we all want Gwinnett to be in the future, and some of those key contributors are: Jim Maran and the Chamber of Commerce, Gwinnett schools, our cities, county government, our health care agencies, citizens and local businesses led by title sponsor Scientific Atlanta.

Many of the key leaders in your county government are also here today, including my fellow commissioners: Lorraine Green, Mike Beaudreau and Kevin Kenerly (Editor's note: Commissioner Bert Nasuti is recovering from hip-replacement surgery and could not attend). Jock Connell, our outstanding county administrator, is here as well, along with his two deputies, many of the county's department directors, several judges and other elected officials. I hope you will take some time to speak with any of them about your specific thoughts regarding your county government.

The current Board of Commissioners has been together for two years now. We have charted our course, accomplished a great deal, and set some new directions for the county. But before I get to the future, I'd like to begin by reviewing some of the highlights that made Gwinnett a better place in 2006.

Over the last 30 years, a lot of people have been attracted to the quality of life they find here in Gwinnett. I believe the public and private sectors, working together, have done a good job of expanding the infrastructure to meet the demands of rapid growth. Today we have a wide range of housing options, great schools, outstanding parks and excellent libraries.

A few months ago, the board took the bold step of committing additional funding over the next five years to build a new tower at Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville. Similar to past investments in what has now become Georgia Gwinnett College, I believe this investment will provide the foundation for a thriving health care industry in Gwinnett. This is related to our economic development work with the Chamber of Commerce that focuses on bringing more high-quality jobs into the county, so Gwinnett residents won't need to commute long distances to find a good job.

Last spring, our new team scored its first major success when Hewlett Packard agreed to locate a $240 million data center in Suwanee. And we saw job growth of 2.4 percent in the second quarter of 2006 compared to the same quarter the previous year.

We've also improved the jobs we provide by increasing pay and benefits for county government employees - especially our public safety workers - to attract and retain the best people we can.

This Board of Commissioners considers public safety a top priority, and those improvements helped recruit a record 133 new police officers and 113 sheriff's deputies last year.

We're carrying out our goal to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your local government. A study of our building and development review process last year resulted in many excellent recommendations that will be implemented this year. One of those suggestions - an increased use of technology - will make the application and permitting process easier for our customers.

Also, our Planning and Development Department, working closely with the Council for Quality Growth and other jurisdictions in metro Atlanta, has implemented processes to make sure we are on the cutting edge of compliance with House Bill 1385. In fact, the matrix study I referred to earlier showed that our average turn-around for plan review is already less than the 30 days required by law. I expect it will only get better as Glenn Stephens, our new Planning and Development director, and his team begin to implement the consultant's recommendations.

Our water and sewer systems are expanding to meet projected needs for the next 50 years. We are moving ahead with plans to close old, less-efficient treatment plants and consolidate most wastewater treatment at our state-of-the-art water resources center. Our two water filter plants produced 31 billion gallons of drinking water last year, an average of 88 million gallons per day, up 7 million gallons per day from 2005. Our Water Resources Department won two national construction-management awards for the new Shoal Creek filter plant and the Hill plant expansion.

Our new stormwater utility is tackling a huge backlog of drainage and environmental issues. In their first year, they investigated 2,400 service requests and completed 150 stormwater construction projects. I'll talk more about water and environmental issues in a few minutes.

The board has been especially focused on revitalizing 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. We can do both.

Everyone who owns property in Gwinnett has a stake in maintaining the value of that investment. And everyone who lives here - whether or not they own property - has a stake in preserving and improving the quality of life that makes this a very 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. And that's why we are investing in the infrastructure - water, sewer, roads and parks - in older parts of the county. By making these investments, we hope to stimulate additional private investment.

We're doing our part by upgrading and modernizing our water and sewer facilities, making road improvements and building new or improved parks to keep older areas attractive and desirable. Another tool we're using is our ability to influence development through land-use planning and zoning laws. As a result, high-rise condominiums will soon be built right here in the Gwinnett Place Mall area, which needs an economic shot in the arm to stay vibrant and vital.

We're continuing to enforce existing codes and ordinances through our new Quality of Life Unit in the Police Department. And we've passed new ordinances to outlaw "urban camping" in public parks and regulate taxi services in Gwinnett. Revisions to our property maintenance ordinance have focused on junk vehicles, residential occupancy limits, graffiti removal and temporary signage.

2006 was a productive year for the county.

A new building for the Recorder's and Juvenile Courts has already helped relieve crowded conditions in the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center. An expansion at the Pre-Trial Detention Center added more than 1,400 new beds. We also cut the ribbons on two libraries, a tag office, two fire stations, a police precinct building in Dacula and a satellite precinct in Peachtree Corners.

We are very pleased with our Department of Transportation, which awarded over $110 million in road construction contracts for 57 projects in 2006, compared to $43 million for 38 projects in 2005, and only $29 million in 2004. We resurfaced 110 of our 2,600 miles of roads, and completed 17 'quick fix' transportation projects to relieve congestion and improve traffic safety.

In addition to these local projects, we also contributed significantly to state and federal road projects. Since 1992, for example, we have contributed more than $131 million in local funds for projects on state routes in Gwinnett County.

Currently, the county and Georgia DOT have under construction approximately $325 million in road projects right here in Gwinnett County, including the State Route 20 and State Route 120 widening projects and huge intersection improvements at Pleasant Hill and Buford Highway and I-85 at State Route 316. We've played a considerable role in each of these projects, such as design, right-of-way acquisition and environmental permitting.

If you ever drive anywhere in Gwinnett County, you'll be glad to know that we're upgrading Automated Traffic Management Systems on many major thoroughfares and installing new ones on many others. These locations include U.S. 29, Jimmy Carter Boulevard, Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, State Route 20, Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road and Scenic Highway.

Some people say better public transportation is the best way to get cars off the road, while others say it's impractical because nobody uses it. Well, I'm pleased to report that Gwinnett Transit express buses increased ridership last year to an average of almost 1,900 passengers per day - that's close to 2,000 cars you didn't have to contend with - and use of local buses increased to an average of 5,100 riders per day.

If you're above all that traffic on a private plane or corporate jet, you'll appreciate that we updated the master plan for Briscoe Field airport and completed electrical and security improvements.

If you just want to go for a walk or enjoy the outdoors, we've got great places for that as well. In fact, our Parks and Recreation division was named one of the top four in the nation by the National Recreation and Park Association. Last year, we opened 10 new or renovated parks, broke ground for three more new parks, and bought about 200 acres of new parkland at six different sites.

Last October, our first "green building" - the fantastic Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center - opened near the Mall of Georgia. It's an educational facility focused on water, and it's a joint project with the Gwinnett County Board of Education and the University of Georgia.

We are extremely fortunate that Gwinnett voters have approved six SPLOST programs to fund the construction of public facilities since 1985. The results are evident all around us. ...

We're also making good strides with less tangible improvements like operational efficiency and customer service. Every day, your Gwinnett County government takes on the huge task of providing water, sewer, police and fire protection to more than 750,000 residents across 437 square miles.

We must - and we will -efficiently and effectively meet the needs of our resident population. Remember, Gwinnett added about 25,000 new residents last year. And we'll continue to meet the new needs of this dynamic community as they arise.

In many ways, Gwinnett has matured. Most of the county has now been developed or preserved as greenspace. So our challenges and opportunities are changing. As a community, we now have a more established lifestyle, and we're working to maintain and improve on what we've already achieved.

I applaud the efforts of our cities to improve their downtown areas. Investing public money in infrastructure improvements helps enhance and protect the economic value of a neighborhood. Such investments also create jobs - in construction initially and then later in meeting the long-term needs of the new people and businesses who will choose to live, work and play there.

By keeping all parts of the county attractive and up to date, we can control our own destiny. We can draw new investments in housing. We can attract new employers and corporate headquarters with high-paying jobs. We can build on the strength of our diversity and offer a multitude of new shopping, dining and entertainment opportunities.

Some say we're overgrown and overdeveloped, but I believe the best is yet to come. We have such a solid foundation for future growth that what comes next will surely stand the test of time.Which is not to say it will be easy, or that this bright future will just happen without a lot of hard work, dedicated planning and serious investments.

We must all work together with a common vision, and that's where Partnership Gwinnett comes in - to create the kind of Gwinnett that we want to leave to our children.

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. Let's look at what's happening around us. What's changing and how we're responding to those changes.

Our population, our people are changing, too.

One in four Gwinnett residents today was born in another country. Different cultures and different languages are becoming part of the new urban mix that now characterizes Gwinnett County.

If we look at American history, we see that many strengths can come from this melting pot of ideas, skills and talents. But we must be willing to listen and learn from each other. We must continue to find new ways to develop our strengths, to lift each other up and to avoid entering the trap of separatism and prejudice.

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

Another notable change is that our population is getting older. There are 78 million baby boomers who make up 37 percent of our nation's current work force. They will start turning 65 in four years. So we foresee an urgent need for more senior services, more senior housing options, more Meals On Wheels, and more facilities like our new Prime Timers Pointe senior activity center at George Pierce Park.

Last year, volunteers delivered almost 85,000 Meals on Wheels to homebound seniors and answered 13,000 calls for information about senior services in Gwinnett County. We need to strengthen these programs now so they will be firmly in place when our growing senior population needs them in the future.

It's not just baby boomers that are getting older - so is much of the infrastructure that was built to serve them. Facilities that met the demands of growth back in the '60s and '70s are now beginning to show their age. Small sewage plants and old pipelines are inadequate and inefficient by today's standards. In this decade alone, we've invested over a billion dollars to upgrade our water and sewer systems. And our long-range plans call for investing more over the next few years.

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 draw millions of gallons of raw water - about 115 gallons per person every day - from Lake Lanier. But as our need for clean water continues to grow, there are fears of less water for all the folks downstream in DeKalb County, the city of Atlanta, Alabama and Apalachicola on the Gulf Coast of Florida. One solution is to reclaim and return more of our wastewater to its source, Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee.

Many of our older wastewater treatment plants discharge into streams that flow to the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Chattahoochee's natural destination of the Gulf of Mexico. That's why it was so important to get the permit that we finally received late last year to return highly treated wastewater to Lake Lanier.

In return, we agreed to meet rigorous and expensive standards for the wastewater we will release to the lake. We also agreed to move the discharge point to the deepest part of the lake near the dam to minimize its thermal impact. We will continue to be good stewards of our most precious natural resource - the water in our lakes, rivers, and streams.

Drainage issues and stormwater management have become big challenges as environmental regulations get tougher and more land is paved. Hard surfaces such as concrete and asphalt prevent water from absorbing slowly into the water table. Heavy rains cause flooding that gets worse when old, galvanized drain pipes fail. And the cost of complying with state and federal water quality laws is increasing - in terms of both capital and labor.

We've begun an aggressive approach to this challenge by fixing a large backlog of drainage problems, replacing failed drainpipes and taking steps required by law to protect the water quality in our streams and rivers.

Meeting the health care needs of our growing and aging population is another concern. I believe our additional support for Gwinnett Medical Center of $25 million over the next five years will help provide modern, in-county facilities that will in turn attract more new investments. This funding is in addition to the 30-year, $30 million commitment that helped fund the new Gwinnett Medical Center in Duluth.

And then there's the continuing challenge of making roads and bridges wide enough to handle increasing traffic loads, improving intersection safety and alignment, and providing alternatives to using cars and trucks for transportation.

I'm very pleased that reconstruction of the I-85/316 interchange is proceeding smoothly but still has two more years to go. The old interchange was built in 1962 to handle 32,000 cars per day. Today, 270,000 cars use it every day.

Work is also under way to extend Sugarloaf Parkway to 316 from its current end at Georgia 20 southeast of Lawrenceville. This will link Duluth to Dacula and provide a much-needed cross-county thoroughfare. We expect to have a construction contract in place by the end of this year.

We here at Gwinnett County will continue to work with state and federal agencies to pursue other transportation initiatives to relieve congestion on our roads.

We must never forget that much of our success depends on the availability of good jobs in our community. We need a balanced environment where people can live, work and play without having to leave Gwinnett.

We want to help attract the right kinds of businesses to Gwinnett - those with high-paying skilled jobs and clean, nonpolluting operations. More businesses mean that we can re-balance the tax base between residential and commercial properties.

After years of seeing the tax digest move out of balance - with housing overtaking commercial - we saw a reversal in that trend last year. The residential share of the tax digest went down while the commercial went up, and we expect to see improvement again this year. A balanced mix is a good thing for all of us because, frankly, it costs more to provide government services for residential properties than it does for commercial.

We want to be more proactive in shaping the kind of community we all want - a community where people are safe and comfortable. A community where people are free to find and experience success for themselves without spending hours in the car every day. We must keep putting the right pieces in place to continue our success. That is the continuing challenge for your local government. And it is a challenge that my fellow commissioners and I look forward to meeting this year, and for many years to come.

In conclusion, I'd like to emphasize some of the same ideas that I shared with you last year. That 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 grandchildren. We need your active and vocal support for necessary initiatives, whether it's the sales tax or a new bond referendum. We must work together to build and maintain the solid infrastructure that supports us all.

This call to action rings as true today as ever before in our county's history.

2007 will be another exciting year.

We will open many new county facilities, including:

• A new and much-needed animal welfare facility.

• A state-of the-art police training center.

• Two fire station relocations in Norcross and Grayson and a new station near Dacula.

• We'll be designing a new library for Hamilton Mill as well and a new 911 Call Center and police headquarters annex in Lawrenceville.

We're getting better year-by-year, and the best is yet to come. This is truly an exciting time to live in Gwinnett County. All of us at the county government - staff and elected officials - are excited, pleased, and honored to serve the residents of this great county.

We look forward to working with you to make Gwinnett County the best it can possibly be.

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