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Board: Ambulance cuts 'off table'
Commissioners rule out dropping emergency medical services

YOUNG HARRIS - Ambulances will remain among Gwinnett's first responders, as commissioners ruled out cutting emergency medical services as a budget tightening measure.

During the board's annual retreat in Young Harris Monday, board members gave county staff the go-ahead to study cost-cutting measures such as reducing park hours, staffing reductions and possibly even closing the county prison.

But they said the ambulance proposal, which came as part of a 100-day study intent on finding millions in budget cuts, was "off the table."

"I think the general public feels the most basic services we provide are public safety," Commissioner Bert Nasuti said, also saying closing a Peachtree Corners police precinct should not be considered.

Commissioner Mike Beaudreau added that the delay of a proposed Grayson precinct wasn't appropriate.

But the public safety projects were nearly the only ones completely thrown out of the study's 152 proposed initiatives, which could save more than $75 million in taxes.

Commissioners asked for caution on proposals such as pay incentives and other benefits for county employees, and asked that subsidies for health agencies be carefully weighed.

"We are against hard times," Chairman Charles Bannister said. "We have to tone (spending) down a notch, but we don't want to get into the basic services."

Facing a proposed budget that would require tapping the county's reserve fund for $43 million, officials are considering cuts from staff positions and furloughs to closing community schools and scrapping the lighting of the Christmas Tree and Fourth of July celebrations.

With a slowed economy causing flat revenues and a greater demand for service, local and state governments have faced cuts throughout the nation. But Commissioner-elect Shirley Fanning-Lasseter said she preferred the county's method of study over Georgia's across-the-board percentage cuts.

"You have options you can choose from ... rather than cutting across the board," she said. "I think that's the most dangerous thing you can do. ... We have to look at the entire picture."

While officials talked about the possibility of a tax increase to provide services, Beaudreau said an increase in a millage rate would increase taxpayer expectations.

"I look at this as an opportunity to get to the meat and potatoes of what the county needs to be doing, not what we've been roped into the past 15 or 20 years," he said.

With nearly $5 million in savings from already announced layoffs in the departments of planning and development and water resources, County Administrator Jock Connell said officials would attempt to add more of the cost-saving measures to the 2009 budget, which will come before the public during a Thursday night meeting.

But he said if the changes aren't complete before the scheduled Jan. 6 vote, commissioners could consider a continuation budget, which would continue payroll and other bills for a few weeks.

"If we are going to go on in a quality way, we're going to have to make tough decisions," Connell said.