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State of the County: 'Success still lives in Gwinnett'

The following is the text from Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister's 2008 State of the County Address:

Good afternoon, and thank you.

I have the honor today of reporting to you once again on the state of our great county.

And let me begin by saying this: The state of Gwinnett County is strong and getting stronger every day. Whether from a standpoint of public safety, education, transportation or infrastructure, we remain the envy of metro Atlanta and the State of Georgia. Success still lives in Gwinnett.

For proof of that, just go back and look at last week's headlines and the fact that the Atlanta Braves' AAA team is moving here from Richmond, Va., and will soon be the Gwinnett Braves! That's going to take a little getting used to, but it sure does sound good.

The hard work, collaboration and leadership that went into putting that deal together is a classic illustration of how and why Gwinnett works. Once again, political and business leaders worked together to make something big and important happen for our community, and I want to salute the Convention and Visitors Bureau and especially my fellow commissioner, Bert Nasuti, for the vision and leadership it took to make this happen.

In addition to Bert, I'm joined here today by our fellow county commission members: Lorraine Green, Mike Beaudreau and Kevin Kenerly.

I also see many of our mayors and city council members, legislators, judges, prosecutors and other elected officials. I know they are as proud as I am to serve the citizens and businesses of Gwinnett.

I also want to recognize the leaders of our community improvement districts who are playing a crucial role in revitalizing important areas of our county, as well as the leaders of Partnership Gwinnett. And I especially want to thank our good friends at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and the Council for Quality Growth for hosting us here at the Marriott again this year.

I also want to recognize Jock Connell, our county administrator, and our deputy administrators and department directors. I'm constantly impressed with the dedication, professionalism and creativity I see day in and day out on the part of the good people who staff our county departments - from senior management to hard-working career employees who perform vital but little-known jobs in county departments most people probably never think about. I appreciate and applaud them all.

The fruits of their labors - and your tax dollars - can be seen all around us every day.

Struggling economy

Most of you here today are in private business. If you've been at it for a long time, as I have, you've managed through good times and bad times ... through up-cycles and down-cycles. Throughout most of our careers - public and private - Gwinnett County has been blessed with up-cycles. Today, however, I have to report to you that we are entering a period of considerable challenge.

Virtually all economists agree that the nation's economy is softening and that we may be headed for a recession. Just last month, the new dean of the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business warned that Georgia's economy was at "imminent risk" of slipping into a recession this year, thanks in particular to the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the drought.

I'll leave it to the economists to argue the technicalities of whether we are in an actual recession. But I can tell you that Gwinnett is already seeing - and feeling - the effects of the economic downturn. Probably the most telling indicator is that residential building permits fell 47 percent in 2007. In addition, sales tax collections dropped two percent in 2007, and it appears that trend will continue into 2008.

The first place your county commission feels these effects is in developing and managing the county's annual budget. Hard times create greater demands for government service and action, but they also constrain our financial resources. We're like all of you in this kind of environment: We have to do more with less, and that's what we're attempting to accomplish with the 2008 budget.

Because of declining revenues, this budget is right at $1.53 billion, down several million dollars from 2007. We're holding the line on spending ... but for the second time in many years, our operational budget exceeds the capital budget ... and this causes some concerns. The operating side of the budget will rise 4.9 percent to 856 million dollars, while capital spending will be reduced 15 percent to 676 million dollars. This is not a good long-term strategy, but we do think it's appropriate for the current environment.

One thing we know is that downturns in the economy produce upturns in crime, and the new budget reflects that reality. A significant portion of the new money in the operating budget is going into public safety. We're adding nearly three dozen positions to the police department. Twenty-nine will be sworn officers and five will go to the 911 center. We're also adding nine positions to staff a new medical unit in the fire department.

We've also added our tenth superior court judgeship. Adding that new judge triggers the creation of 16 new positions - including court clerks, assistant district attorneys, and sheriff's deputies - and will cost right at $2 million a year to operate. To build on that point, it's worth emphasizing that the portion of the General Fund Budget consumed by the Courts and the Sheriff's Office has grown from 16 percent 10 years ago to 26 percent today. That obviously poses a major budget challenge and squeezes us in other areas, but it's essentially nondiscretionary spending. We arguably need to be doing more in these areas, and doing less would create a host of bigger problems.

One consequence of that trend, however, is that funding - and staffing - in such areas as public works, community services and other areas has grown at a much slower pace over the past ten years ... and, in fact, the ratio of county employees to residents is actually dropping slightly in 2008, to 6.14 employees per thousand residents.

In the capital budget, we'll fund $96 million in expansions to the Hill Water Resources Plant to bring its capacity up to 80 million gallons of wastewater per day. Among many other improvements, we will also finish out a portion of the top floor of the Recorder's and Juvenile Court building, remodel the first and second floors of the One Justice Square Building and upgrade the fire alarm system in the older section of the Pre-Trial Detention Center. We'll also begin the construction of a new library in the Hamilton Mill area and continue to expand our parks system.

As part of this pay-as-you-go budget, we're also holding the line on the county millage rate for the fifth year in a row. And, critically, we continue to have the confidence of Wall Street. Gwinnett is one of only 23 counties in the country that has a AAA credit rating from the three major credit rating agencies. Furthermore, we've maintained that top credit rating for 10 years now.

Because of our conservative and responsible approach to budget and operational management, I believe that your county government - and the partnership represented here today - is well prepared and positioned to confront the challenges now on our horizon, and I believe we can and will emerge from this period even stronger than we are today.

Those of us here today have a shared vision of a Gwinnett economy that is ever-vibrant and ever-growing. I can assure you that is the central focus of my daily efforts. But I submit that we should view our current environment as a cooling-off period during which we can catch our breath and catch up on such important work as ... continuing to make improvements in critical parts of our infrastructure ... locking in on a new 2030 Comprehensive Plan that will serve as a blueprint for future growth ... and getting ourselves in a position to take advantage of the better times that will come if we do our jobs correctly now. Right now we're being tag-teamed by economic and natural forces that are largely beyond our immediate control. But this, too, shall pass. And I, for one, can think of nowhere I would rather be than in Gwinnett County.

Let me give you some of the reasons why.

Water

The current drought is perhaps the worst of my lifetime, and we may not have seen the end of it. Thankfully, Gwinnett has one of the finest water systems in the United States. Because of the efficiencies of our system, we've actually been able to reduce the per capita use of water in Gwinnett by 24 percent in the last 10 years.

And we continue to expand the system and to improve its ability to help us conserve water. Last year, we finally received the necessary permissions to begin returning highly treated wastewater to Lake Lanier. And we're now building a pipeline from the Hill Water Resources Center to the lake. While this recycling system won't help us during the current drought, in the future it'll enable us to conserve and reuse an estimated 40 million gallons per day.

Still, every week, Gwinnett needs about a half-billion gallons of water from Lake Lanier. Yet throughout 2007, the Army Corps of Engineers released as much as nine billion gallons a week from the lake for downstream uses. This is well above the amount of water that would naturally flow from the lake during these dry conditions.

I believe we should've had much more water in the lake this past year even with the drought. So we're working with the State of Georgia, our neighboring states and the Corps of Engineers to find a fair and equitable way to make the best use of our water resources.

As well, I want to thank all of you - and indeed all the citizens of Gwinnett County - for their personal efforts to conserve water. We fell just a little short of Gov. Perdue's goal of a 10 percent reduction in November, but we met that target in December. We'll need to continue that effort and these new habits for a long time, even after the rains return.

Transportation

Transportation is another major area of emphasis. In 2007, we spent over $145 million on transportation projects. We completed 45 of those projects - building, resurfacing, or otherwise improving more than 100 miles of roads and highways throughout the county. This includes new lanes, new sidewalks, new fiber optic lines and new traffic signals.

In addition, we started work on another 31 projects last year. These projects involve 19 miles of new lanes, 12 miles of sidewalks and 13 new or upgraded traffic signals. We also completed 23 "quick-fix" projects designed to relieve traffic bottlenecks with simple turn lanes or traffic signals, and without having to spend a great deal of time or money on right-of-way purchases.

And we continue to work with our federal, state and regional partners on such major projects the Interstate 85/Ga. Highway 316 Interchange, the widening of Ga. highways 20 and 120 and the railroad grade separation and interchange project at Pleasant Hill Road and Buford Highway. All of these should be open to traffic by the end of the year.

In November, we began work on an entirely new artery, the Sugarloaf Extension. This will be the first new limited-access roadway built in Gwinnett in 18 years ... and the first phase will stretch from Ga. 20, south of Lawrenceville to Ga. 316 in Dacula. It will be built in three segments over a period of five years, and it will provide much-needed congestion relief to the central and eastern areas of the county.

Congestion relief will also come from our continued emphasis on bus service. In 2007, we had nearly 2 million boardings on our express and local buses. Think about that, folks: That's nearly one million car trips we took off the road with a bus system that is still pretty young and growing. We averaged about 4,100 boardings a day on the local service and another 2,600 on the express service. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority launched a new express route from Snellville to downtown Atlanta, which is proving to be very popular.

I want to mention as well that we are now installing leading-edge intelligent transportation management systems, including video cameras and remote controls that will strengthen our ability to provide real-time traffic management services in the high-traffic areas. Gwinnett is working hard to leverage these technologies in dealing with the traffic challenges we face. In fact, we completed eight traffic signal timing projects last year affecting 30 miles of roads and 118 intersections.

Without the very effective partnerships we have built with state and federal transportation agencies, we wouldn't be as far along on these or other initiatives as we are today. In the last three years alone, we have received close to $26 million from the state, in transportation assistance - and I certainly want to thank our friends in those agencies for their help and collaboration on all these critical projects.

As a final note on transportation, we are beginning a serious discussion about the possibility of creating public-private partnerships to add new roads that the county simply cannot afford to build on its own. We've still got a lot of work and thinking to do about this. But when you combine the county's borrowing power with the fact that our traffic problems represent a real market opportunity for big private investors, it's not difficult to see the makings of a possible long-term strategy that could enable us to address some of our transportation problems.

Economic development

Of course, water management and transportation are central to our work in two other related areas: economic development and revitalization. Your county government has been working with three Community Improvement Districts on improvements to U.S. Highway 78 near Snellville, Satellite Boulevard near Gwinnett Place Mall, and Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Buford Highway near Norcross.

In terms of broader economic development, the same initiative this board kick-started in 2005, which brought the Hewlett Packard relocation to Gwinnett, has now fully joined forces with the community-wide Partnership Gwinnett campaign.

Partnership Gwinnett is just beginning its second year of existence and is already beginning to bear fruit. During the past several months, Partnership Gwinnett has produced approximately 30 business expansions and relocations. The largest of these deals, the Meggitt Defense Systems relocation, brought an $80 million capital investment and 400 new jobs. With major investments from the county government, the Gwinnett Chamber, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the school system, Gwinnett Medical Center, IBM and Scientific Atlanta, Partnership Gwinnett is focused on attracting solid high-tech and health care companies that provide good, high-paying jobs.

I encourage others to get involved and support this effort.

Gwinnett County produces the best and brightest young minds in Georgia, and we want to ensure that they have an opportunity to prosper in Gwinnett beyond graduation.

While many people contribute to the success of Partnership Gwinnett, I think special recognition is due for the visionary leadership of co-chairs Bill McCargo and Sharon Bartels, along with Jim Maran and his staff.

Within the context of economic development, I want to touch again on last week's announcement about the Gwinnett Braves. I don't know if everybody realizes it, but one of Partnership Gwinnett's stated goals was to recruit a minor league baseball team to the county. That was an ambitious goal, and I don't think anybody was aiming as high as the Braves' triple-A team. But that's what happens in Gwinnett when you set clear goals and work toward them. It will be a while before we fully appreciate the economic impact this will have on our community, but it will be truly enormous. It adds a real layer of muscle to our local economy. And it extends the Gwinnett brand in so many important ways.

More broadly, economic development is central to the way we try to manage your county government. We know successful businesses that are looking for relocation or expansion sites are interested in communities that offer a first-rate quality of life, excellent schools for their children, top-notch health care, a vibrant business community and a stable, responsive local government.

More often than not, we think we're doing well on all counts. Our great school system needs no praise from me, but it's almost always the first thing economic development prospects ask about, and we're always happy to brag about it.

Health care

Likewise, Gwinnett Medical Center serves as the foundation of a very robust health care system in our county. The county government is proud to have partnered with the good folks at Gwinnett Medical on the expansion of their facility, and we are actively supporting their application for state approval to establish an open-heart surgery program at the Lawrenceville campus.

I urge you to do what you can to support the hospital's open-heart application as well. Gwinnett is the largest county in the nation without an open-heart surgery program inside its boundaries ... and I don't know about you, but I'd feel a lot better knowing we've got that capability right here in Lawrenceville.

Beyond that vital health care service, the addition of an open-heart program and the expansion of the hospital will help us continue to grow the health care sector of our economy here in Gwinnett. I want to emphasize that the open-heart program and the tower expansion are projected to stimulate the creation of more than 400 new health care jobs in Gwinnett, so we have multiple objectives in mind with our partnership with Gwinnett Medical Center.

As for quality of life, we continue to develop and expand one of the finest park systems in the country. This year, we'll break ground on Harbins Park, which will be the largest in the county, and we'll open the West Gwinnett Aquatics Center. We'll also open Peachtree Ridge Park, adding the county's second special needs ballfield and playground. We're also planning bikeways in greenspace corridors connecting major activity centers throughout the county.

Public safety

Quality of life also means security and safety. Last year, we opened a state-of-the-art police training facility that will enable us to maintain a highly trained police force. We also merged the code enforcement officers from planning and development with the police department's quality of life unit, to create a more effective team to enforce quality of life codes and ordinances, while enhancing traditional law enforcement efforts.

In 2007, we hired 295 new public safety employees, and we've invested in higher pay scales that have enabled us to greatly improve our retention rates among emergency personnel and reduce vacancies.

Government

As for your county government, we have challenged ourselves and our administrative staff to think outside the box and look for new ways to serve our residents more creatively, effectively and efficiently. We haven't been afraid to re-organize where it makes sense or to outsource in situations where it's appropriate and economical. We recognize that technology is central to our ability to continue improving our operations and making gains in both productivity and efficiency.

Gwinnett County is a leader in the e-government world, and we are constantly expanding our Internet-based information and service capabilities. I'm particularly proud of our Web-based Geographic Information Systems and the new online Citizen Self Service program, which allows our customers to submit service requests online. You can even upload photos of a pothole on your street and track the county's progress in fixing it. These and our other online conveniences can be found at gwinnettcounty.com, which attracted more than 39 million page-views in 2007. This service is obviously very popular with our constituents.

SPLOST

As I begin to wrap up these remarks, I want to focus for a few moments on the 2008 one-penny special purpose local option sales tax that will be on the November election ballot. We're very proud of the fact that Gwinnett voters have consistently supported the SPLOST over the years, and they will have another opportunity to do so this fall.

Over the years, our SPLOST programs have enabled us to make more than $1.78 billion in capital investments. SPLOST dollars have been used to build the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, acquire more than 4,400 acres of parkland and greenspace, purchase police cars and other public safety equipment, expand our transportation infrastructure, build and improve our parks, build new libraries, and construct new fire stations and police precincts. Without SPLOST, we would've had to raise property taxes by more than 60 percent to accomplish what we have since the year 2000.

In the near future, the Commission will hammer out a SPLOST project list for 2008, and we will of course be publicizing that information. A one-penny SPLOST here in Gwinnett generates approximately 150 million dollars annually. And especially since our tax digest is primarily residential in nature, we would need those sales tax revenues to continue funding infrastructure expansion and improvements. I encourage all of you to stay plugged in to this process and remember SPLOST when it's on the ballot in November.

So again, we have our work cut out for us in 2008 and beyond. But that's nothing new. For all of my adult life, the story of Gwinnett County has been one of rapidly unfolding opportunity and challenge - and generations of Gwinnett leaders have worked to shape those opportunities and meet those challenges.

The result is a grand and vibrant community, built on the sweat and vision of a multitude of civic, business and political leaders whose vision, courage and leadership, laid the foundation for this 21st century community.

Today, we stand on the shoulders of successive generations of Gwinnett giants. Each generation plowed the row a little further... laying a foundation that made it possible, for example, to recruit the triple-A Braves.

I believe our shared pride in that history and tradition is what motivates everybody here to get up every morning thinking about how we can make this county a better place to live and work and raise our families.

We are but the present stewards of Brand Gwinnett and our time will pass soon enough. When it does, my prayer for all of us is, that those who follow will appreciate our contributions as much as we appreciate those of the leaders who came before us.

Thank you all for being here. And now, let's get back to work!