Effort seeks input on service problem

LAWRENCEVILLE - Citizen outcry to a proposed property tax increase ultimately led the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners to cut a range of county-provided services.

Those service cuts ended up leaving some of those same residents upset.

To try to thwart something similar from happening next year, the county this week announced an effort - Engage Gwinnett - that will try to get the citizenry involved in determining how to provide an adequate amount of county government services while also trying to figure out how to pay for those services over the course of the next five years.

A joint effort sponsored by the Board of Commissioners and the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, the idea behind the Engage program is to get citizens involved in the process of how to pay for what the county's residents need and demand the most.

"Like most local governments around our region and our nation, Gwinnett is having to balance declining revenues with desired service levels," Chairman Charles Bannister said in a released statement. "To come out of this recession successfully we need informed recommendations from people throughout our community.

"We're asking for 30 community stakeholder groups and 10 self-appointed citizen leaders to join with county government and Chamber officials to strategically involve the community in the process of making informed recommendations about future service levels, funding needs and revenue sources," Bannister said.

According to Jann Moore, an assistant to the chairman, a range of community groups are being contacted and asked to supply one member to the initiative. These include Rotary groups, minority groups, homeowners' association boards, the three community improvement districts and a host of others.

She said the citizens committee will self-select its 10 representatives at a public meeting during the second week of September, but that all meetings will be open to the public in an attempt to make the process as transparent as possible. To get a group of citizens from all over Gwinnett, she said the county will try to "geographically balance" those interested. She also said the commissioners will not directly participate in the initiative too much because they don't want to influence the members and the recommendations they'll ultimately make to the board.

"They'll wait for the recommendations in March," Moore said. "But they do want to hear from the broad community and not just people who come to speak at public meetings."

Moore said the idea for the initiative was Bannister's and said the county looked into similar efforts that have taken place in other places across the country. She mentioned Wake County, N. C., and an unnamed Seattle suburb as two places that have implemented similar efforts meant to engage the citizenry.

"He's (Bannister) wanted to do this for a long while," Moore said. "It's going to be one of the most important things we've ever done in this county."

The committee chairmen for the Engage effort will be Bill McCargo, who's retiring from Cisco in September, and Mike Levengood, a partner in the law firm McKenna, Long and Aldridge. Moore said both men have years of experience bringing people together to work for the good of the entire community.

"Mike and I will work with the committee members to identify what services the county should provide and at what level," McCargo said in a released statement. "We'll also look at criteria like growth projections, physical infrastructure plans and determine funding needs and potential revenue sources."

"Seeking the advice of community leaders to help find common-sense solutions may be one of the most important tasks we will do as a community because every citizen in the county has a stake in the direction and the environment we're creating for future generations," Levengood said in a released statement. "This is not a PR effort. It's a sincere, transparent opportunity for many people to become involved before the decisions have been made."

For those interested in participating, details about the date and time of the Engage kickoff event will soon be posted at the county's Web site - www.gwinnettcounty.com.