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Bannister counters on revenue
Chairman unveils his sales, property tax plans

LAWRENCEVILLE - As is common in a Republican primary, candidates for the chairman of the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners agree they want to cut taxes.

But the fight over how to do so continued Tuesday, with incumbent Charles Bannister releasing his plan to decrease property taxes and institute a countywide sales tax to pay for government operations.

The plan to use a sales tax is similar to one announced two weeks ago by primary challenger Lorraine Green, although Green proposes a homestead option sales tax, which would give a 100 percent homestead exemption on property and keep commercial property taxes in place.

Bannister, though, wants to do a variation on the current local option sales tax program used in 147 counties. The one percent tax, he said, would allow for half of the county's property tax revenues to be rolled back each year, giving both commercial property and homeowners a break. The property tax roll back would be computed each year.

He believes the idea is more stable for tax revenues and would give the county the opportunity to delay property tax increases for burgeoning government needs.

"The LOST is a rising tide that raises all ships. Residential property owners get a tax break, commercial property owners get a tax break and therefore are able to pass on lower lease rates to businesses in our county," he said. "Besides, it should be pretty obvious that if only two counties have chosen the HOST and 147 have chosen the LOST that the LOST is the significantly more desirable vehicle for reducing the property tax burden in Gwinnett."

But Green said the LOST program doesn't guarantee property tax cuts, and if he goes to the Legislature to get the changes he wants, it could take years to approve a constitutional amendment.

"My biggest goal is to provide for the homeowners of this county, and my plan is the only one that guarantees that homeowners get relief," she said. "Our citizens want relief now, and my plan could be enacted by next summer."

When Green held a press conference two weeks ago to announce her plan for a homestead option sales tax to replace property taxes for homeowners, Bannister said Green stole his idea and he would release further details on his plan later.

Since then, members of the Gwinnett Municipal Association have spoken out against Green's plan, saying the HOST plan would mean a rush of residential development while discouraging businesses from locating in the county.

"Gwinnett County does not need to follow in the footsteps of DeKalb County when it comes to taxation," Suwanee Councilman Jace Brooks, a former chairman of the municipal group, said in Bannister's press release. "The last thing we need to do is encourage more high-density residential property and discourage businesses with a hostile tax system."

Cities would get a share of LOST funding but none from HOST, Green pointed out.

Green said she believes the HOST program is the only viable one for the county, but she added that excess revenues from the sales tax would allow for a reduced millage rate for commercial property owners, too.

"My plan still gives commercial property owners a break, but it takes care of homeowners first," she said. "There's no doubt the spending of the past three years will require a change in tax policy without significantly reducing services citizens have come to expect."

Glenn Pirkle, a political newcomer who is a third candidate on the July 15 primary, said he doesn't like either plan.

"I'm not in favor of any sales tax plan that does not remove all property taxes," he said. "They'll come back later and raise the property tax back up."

DeKalb County has reinstituted a property tax on homeowners since its HOST program began.

"Lorraine's plan would lead to the eventual return of property taxes on homeowners and likely, as in DeKalb, add tax increases on the county's commercial property based," Bannister said. "Not exactly a formula for economic growth for our county. Her plan would reverse the progress we have seen over the past three years that have attracted over 21,000 high-paying jobs to Gwinnett that have resulted in an average salary increase countywide of over $7,000 a year.

"Gwinnett citizens deserve better. They need and deserve a plan that will provide real property tax cuts that are permanent. We have to beware of campaign season ploys by desperate candidates. That's why I have a plan that will benefit everyone."