County, cities divide special sales tax funds

LAWRENCEVILLE - He had to sign his name 18 times in a row, as documents slid around tables shaped in a huge square. But Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson said he didn't feel any pain in his wrist.

"For that kind of money, no carpal tunnel," he said with a laugh, as he posed for photos with mayors from across Gwinnett.

Officials from all 15 local cities signed agreements with the county government Friday to receive a portion of sales tax dollars, if a five-year extension to the program passes in November.

Commissioners are expected to call for the referendum Tuesday, agreeing to set aside the first 20 percent of funds for parks and libraries and distributing the rest between city and county projects based on population.

About half of the projected $850 million would go toward county and city transportation projects, with officials also setting aside money for county police and fire stations and $95 million for an expansion to the county courthouse.

City projects include new city halls for Sugar Hill, Berkeley Lake and Lilburn, a police station for Snellville and parks and roads for nearly every municipality.

"We are very grateful for the level of cooperation that was involved," said Berkeley Lake Mayor Lois Salter, who heads the Gwinnett Municipal Association. "I think people only need to look at the past. The track record for (the special purpose local option sales tax) in the county has been great for everybody."

The Nov. 4 vote will be the eighth for a government penny tax, although one referendum failed in 1995. The programs have accounted for $1.86 billion in public investment.

County Finance Director Lisa Johnsa, who worked on reaching the agreements with the cities, said much of that investment would have to stop if the sales tax referendum fails. It would take an increase in property taxes by 5 or 6 mills to make up the funding, she said.

"I think everybody recognizes the SPLOST for what it really means for capital improvements throughout the county and in the cities, too," Chairman Charles Bannister said. The courthouse expansion and the transportation dollars are especially critical, he said.

While city councils have adopted the wish lists for the cities, specific project lists have not been adopted for the county. Officials plan to use a public process for the transportation and parks portions of the program, with public safety projects based on response times and recommendations from police and fire personnel.