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Judge mulls temporary hike
Commission meets today as schools, county running into red

LAWRENCEVILLE - A judge Tuesday balked at assessing different millage rates for people who live inside or outside city limits in Gwinnett, but he will consider setting a temporary higher rate, according to proceedings to allow a temporary collection of taxes.

The judicial intervention was made necessary after county officials failed to set a 2009 millage rate, at this point, one month after property tax bills are usually mailed.

School officials said they would run into the red by October without a temporary collection, and county officials said they are already strapped for cash, running $50 million in the negative.

The $80 million monthly payroll for teachers as well as the payroll for city and county police officers, firefighters and others are in jeopardy.

Judge Timothy Hamil said he understood the need and would attempt to act quickly, but he speedily dismissed a proposal to set dual rates, since the county's tax rate had not been divided among city and non-city residents in the past.

County officials had proposed rates of 10.94 mills for unincorporated residents and 12 mills for incorporated residents, compared to the 2008 rate of 10.97.

Hamil expressed his hesitancy 20 minutes into the proceedings, held in a courtroom packed with mayors, councilmen and officials from 14 cities and the county and school system governments. Then lawyers conferred for more than an hour.

When they returned, county attorneys sought a rate of 11.19 mills, which Finance Director Aaron Bovos said would yield the same amount of money for the county coffers as 2008, as property values have dropped.

Hamil, though, asked for a convening of the Board of Commissioners to publicly vote on a recommendation of the rate. That meeting is scheduled for 4:45 p.m. today.

"I'm still wrestling with the rate that is requested," said Hamil, who asked the county to calculate revenues based on the 2008 rate and 2008 and 2009 tax digests.

He said he expected to issue an order by the end of the day Friday, which could be amended to account for cities whose rates are usually included on the county bills.

So far, the cities of Sugar Hill, Grayson and Lawrenceville will be included in the order, but the county also collects taxes for Dacula, Lilburn, Berkeley Lake and Snellville.

A hearing for the cities who issue their own bills will be held today at 1 p.m.

An official with the tax commissioner's office said bills could be sent about 25 days after an order is signed, unless the judge decides to use the 2008 property tax digest, which would require about 80,000 manual changes and delay the process by two to three weeks.

Otherwise, officials have requested bills be mailed Sept. 15 with a due date of Nov. 15. Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said the system would be in the hole $37.8 million by the end of October, so school officials requested two due dates of Oct. 15 and Nov. 15.

"We have a very severe need," he said, adding that the gap would grow to $141 million by the end of the year without a collection of taxes. "We really must have some relief and some relief quickly."

The tax situation was made stickier by a six-month-old lawsuit between the county and its cities, which failed to reach an agreement on a service delivery strategy.

The 10 cities that formally intervened in the tax collection request all objected to the dual rates proposal, which is an issue a judge in the service delivery dispute is considering. A copy of the litigation's filings were entered into the record on the tax case because of the potential of future disputes, an attorney said.

Chairman Charles Bannister, who did not attend the proceedings, did not return a phone call Tuesday about the proposed rate increase. Bovos said the change would not represent a tax increase under the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights because the revenues would be equal to the last year, but a homeowner whose property values did not change would receive a higher bill.

While many of the mayors who attended Tuesday's hearing said they were pleased that the judge opted out of the dual rates, Lawrenceville Mayor Rex Millsaps said the court costs on this issue - where nine attorneys were involved - was uncalled for.

"I object to the amount of money the cities and the county spent ... needlessly," he said.