County to study services
Officials look to cut 4 percent in costs

LAWRENCEVILLE - With revenues dwindling and costs rising this summer, Gov. Sonny Perdue asked for a 6 percent reduction in costs across state government.

As the leaves began to change, Gwinnett's government officials announced they were seeking about 4 percent in cuts, creating an elaborate study of the county's operations.

The state's cuts have caused discussions on the closing of parks, furloughs, problems for schools and prisons, fewer child protective services workers and could mean the cutting of homestead tax relief, which could cost the Gwinnett government $14.2 million alone.

County leaders say their budget cuts will be aggressive, but may not hurt as much as the state mandate.

"We're not using the blunt knife where everybody gives the same," Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer said of Perdue's call for across-the-board cuts. "We're being as judicious as possible."

The 100-day study has 70 staffers divided into nine teams to look at everything from warehouses to personnel to cut $35 million in operations.

Core services

Since he was elected in 2004, Commissioner Mike Beaudreau has talked about getting back to the "core competencies" of county government: doing its best at what it is most capable and called upon to do.

So the talk about prioritizing service isn't a foreign concept to the conservative commissioner.

"It really goes to the focus of what our core competencies and our core services are," he said.

Asked what he believes those competencies are, Beaudreau said, "public safety, transportation, you can argue parks, not much else. Those are the things we need to focus on."

In talks about the service study, County Administrator Jock Connell said public safety won't be jeopardized because "if there ever was a core mission, that is our core mission."

But while the police and fire departments were spared from a county government hiring freeze earlier this summer, their operations will be scrutinized during the latest attempt at money-saving.

Instead of dividing the county into departments, officials have divided the groups among functions, including public safety efficiency, rates and fees, administrative departments review, back office functions such as human resources and purchasing and supplies and inventory.

"If you only take a look at a department, you won't be able to extrapolate that finding throughout the whole operation," Connell said.

For example, both the departments of transportation and water resources have extensive warehousing functions throughout the county, Comer said. While both would be deemed necessary individually, a study on the function could determine how the two departments could share a warehouse.

Finding efficiencies

For years, Connell's office has studied ways to make the government more efficient. Because of rising costs and flat revenues in a county that has depended on growth for decades, earlier this summer the government instituted a fuel conservation program and hiring freezes for all departments except public safety.

The $60,000 study is a more directed approach, with a goal of cutting $35 million from the county's $850 million operating budget.

"You are seeing not only the private sector but local government being hit by rising costs," Connell said. "This is causing us to delve deeper and deeper into efficiencies out of business necessity."

During a conference call when the study was announced in late September, Comer added, "The level of scrutiny is much deeper this time. This isn't how many paper clips we use in the function, it's maybe we don't do the function any more."

Connell and Comer did not comment on whether the study was an attempt to avoid a tax increase.

While commissioners have decreased the millage rate for more than a decade, officials have warned for the past several years that increasing service costs would soon catch up to revenues, as the county's growth has slowed.

"We know our budgets and forecasts have told us for a while that we have a gap," Comer said.

Connell said the $35 million target is not matched to a revenue reduction, but Comer pointed out that the county had budgeted a $32 million use of reserve funds in 2008.

With the possibility of service cuts and rate hikes, officials say there could also be layoffs, since salaries, insurance and other personnel costs account for about 44 percent of the county's operational expenses.

"We're in the service business, and we are heavily personnel-cost related," Connell said. "You can't look at a study like this without looking at personnel costs."

The 100-day study process will end at about the time Chairman Charles Bannister will release his proposed 2009 budget in early December. Connell said some of the study's findings could be incorporated into the budget before its adoption in January with other changes coming later in the year.

But Comer said it is unclear what could happen to the millage rate, which is usually adopted in May.

"From a staff standpoint, we need to make sure we are squeezing every penny out of every dollar," he said. "The citizens need to know every step has been taken before there is any discussion of a tax increase."