Board approves tax increase

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Despite passionate pleas from residents, commissioners approved a 2.28 mill property tax increase Tuesday -- the first tax increase for the county government in more than a decade.

"Without this vote tonight in a positive manner, we cannot supply the libraries, parks and public safety that our citizens have grown to know, love and expect," Chairman Charles Bannister said.

Residents packed Tuesday's final hearing, just as they did this summer when commissioners rejected a 30 percent tax increase. With the county's unemployment rate still rising, many said they simply cannot afford to pay more.

"To me, it's gas for my car or groceries for my table," said Lawrenceville woman Cheryl Garrett, a widow without a job. "The Board of Commissioners has a hard job, and I understand that, but you really need to take a long, hard look at what you need versus what you want."

But after another public outcry in the fall when county services were slashed, others said the average $160 increase for a home valued at $200,000 was a small price to pay to rehire police officers, open vacant fire stations and maintain county parks. Without the money, judges said the county court system would be shut down and people said they were scared they would be put on hold if they called 911.

Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, who proposed the increase after a judge allowed the county to issue temporary tax bills earlier this year, told a story about when his house burned down when he was a child living in Lilburn. The fire department came the next day, he said.

"It's easy to sit up here and say 'no' all the time. It's easy not to stand for something," he said. "I truly am doing this to protect everyone in this county."

While there were outbursts during the board meeting, many who left the auditorium were resigned to pay more.

"I really feel there is a disconnect between the county commission and the lives of the citizens of Gwinnett County," said Nancy Jones, whose husband is unemployed. "We can sell our furniture, I guess," she said of paying the tax bill. "I'm going to live within my means."

Officials said they would continue to search for ways to increase revenues without increase property taxes, including asking the legislature to allow a penny sales tax to offset operating costs.

Mike Beaudreau, the only commissioner to vote against the proposal, said there is little expense that can be trimmed after more than $120 million in cuts.

"I fear this millage rate increase will be a burden on people with fixed incomes," he said. "Our citizens are suffering out there."

Since the temporary tax bills have already been paid, officials said property owners will be billed for the 2.28 mill increase in March.