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Official: Tax could stop millage hike

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A revamped sales tax proposal could nearly roll Gwinnett property taxes back to the level they were a month ago and stave off the need for another increase in the future, Chairman Charles Bannister said.

But it would take legislation in the General Assembly to do it.

For the second year, Bannister asked legislators Monday to take on a bill that would allow the county a modified version of the local option sales tax program.

More than 150 Georgia counties use the penny on the dollar tax to supplement operating revenues, but the law requires counties to roll back the revenues from the sales tax from the property millage rate.

Bannister would rather roll back half the amount -- or another percentage acceptable to legislators -- using the remaining half to fund services strapped for cash.

Based on preliminary figures, he said after a morning-long session with legislators, about $130 million a year are expected to come in from the current special purpose local option sales tax, which is devoted to capital projects such as road construction, parks, libraries and fire stations.

As one mill equals nearly $30 million in revenue, the county would be able to roll back around two mills for half of the annual proceeds.

That is nearly the amount of the property tax increase -- 2.28 mills -- commissioners approved Dec. 1.

"It would give (property owners) a roll back and stave off a future increase," Bannister said.

Sen. Renee Unterman said she wanted to set up a meeting where legislators, commissioners and county lawyers could go over questions and discuss the proposal. The Buford Republican said she did not have time to delve into the issue during the 2009 legislative session, but she wanted to be armed with information when the General Assembly convenes in January.

"If we're going to do this it's going to take a lot of work," she said. "I think it is an option."

The idea of using a sales tax to fund county services such as police and fire protection was tossed out several times, as residents complained about the tax increase this year.

"I think the voters and all of your constituents and mine would appreciate that opportunity," to use a local option sales tax, Bannister said. "Many of our citizens would like to tap into sales tax for funding operations."

Bannister and county staff also encouraged senators and representatives to approve another penny sales tax to fund transportation projects either on a statewide or regional basis, a long-standing ambition that has not been successful during the past two legislative sessions.

For another way to help fill the county coffers left stagnant from the economic downturn, county officials said they are also involved in a statewide study to increase court and other fees to be more in line with the cost to cover service.

"We all know (the county's problems) are due to the economy by and large. We have problems that can only be solved by finances," Bannister said.