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County making job cuts
Slumping housing, plant closure blamed

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County will eliminate 79 positions in its planning and development department, as construction in the suburban county has dropped at staggering rates.

With 14 positions being eliminated in the Department of Water Resources due to the closure of a sewage treatment plant, the move affects 2 percent of the county's work force of 4,800, but it nearly cuts the Planning and Development Department in half. It is expected to save $4.5 million in 2009 and $5.9 million the following year.

The move comes two days after the election, although officials say that timing is coincidental, and about six weeks after officials announced a major study intent on cutting $35 million from the government's expense.

While some residents are still seething over a $19 million dip into the county reserve fund to pay for upgrades to a minor league baseball stadium, officials said they simply can't justify the jobs when the need for permits has dropped so dramatically.

One of the fastest growing counties in the 1980s and '90s, the number of permits each year, through October, dropped from 14,134 in 2006 to 10,832 in 2007 and 6,954 in 2008, Planning and Development Director Glenn Stephens said.

"We're really here for only one reason and that's to provide a service," County Administrator Jock Connell said. "There's not a demand for those services. ... We need to be stewards of the taxpayers' money and that puts us in a difficult position."

Human Resources Director Kenneth Poe said 12 of the development division positions are already vacant because of a hiring freeze, and officials have offered retirement incentives to 27 people who are eligible to retire or would be within the next year.

The benefits include an additional 20 percent payout of sick leave and vacation accrued, one week of pay for every two years of service and waiving health care premiums for 24 months. The money, on average, amounts to about 35 percent of base pay, but would mean the employee would have to be on leave without pay until their retirement date.

The benefits were offered to another 23 employees in the county's water reclamation division to try to offset layoffs caused by the sewage plant closing, which comes as part of a long-term plan to close the county's older less-efficient plants. The Beaver Ruin Water Reclamation Facility is slated to close by the end of the year.

Employees have until Nov. 21 to accept the retirement offer, at which point officials will consider shuffling employees to different positions and determine layoffs. Poe said the layoffs will not begin until January.

The positions include building inspectors, stormwater inspectors, permit clerks, development review staff and administrative staff.

Stephens said he talked to his employees about the announcement Thursday.

"For the most part, it was somber, but I have to say, I don't know that they were all surprised for the news," he said. "They've seen peers in their trade losing their jobs (as the housing market has slid both locally and nationally.) Being on the front lines, they are much more attuned to what is happening."

In the month of October, the department issued 46 single-family house permits, compared to 156 in 2007 and 422 the same month in 2006.

Connell said he expected there to be critics to the layoffs.

"This is one of the most difficult and painful decisions I have ever had to make," he said. "It affects real people and their livelihood and it's hard. We are hoping that voluntary retirements and transfers will help lessen the impact on individuals, although I can't guarantee that outcome in all cases."

But he said there will likely be more announcements as a study group of about 90 employees on 10 evaluation teams continue their task of improving efficiency and cutting the budget. Most recommendations are due in late November.