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Sugar Hill passes $28 million budget

SUGAR HILL -- Two weeks after Gwinnett County contentiously raised property taxes for the first time in more than a decade, the county's fourth-largest city passed its 2010 budget pridefully without a tax increase for a seventh straight year.

Moreover, the Sugar Hill city council at its monthly meeting Monday passed its ambitious $28 million budget, one that city manager Bob Hail boasted will provide more services and overcome declining property tax revenues -- all without raising taxes.

One resident praised the council at Monday's last required public budget hearing.

"I want to say how proud I am of Sugar Hill because you did not need a judge to set your millage rate, and you were able to increase services," Meg Avery, a former city councilwoman, told the council. "The county can learn a lot from the way we conduct business here."

Despite a tax digest that has shrunk or been flat for three years now, Sugar Hill's budget includes an expected 10 percent increase in city employees' medical insurance premiums, as well as up to a 21/2 percent pay raise for many employees. It also includes first $7 million for construction of a long-awaited city hall and the downtown development of West Broad Street, as well as roughly $3 million for completion of the new 66-acre Gary Pirkle Park and expansion to 57 acres of old E.E. Robinson Park.

With real estate appraisals dropping and foreclosures rising, Hail said the budget accounts for a nearly 10 percent drop in tax revenue, but expects he can deliver results with a general fund of about $18.5 million, little more than this year's $15.4 million.

"Even in these economic times, our budget is growing," he said. "That means we're optimizing every dollar."

Hail said managing Sugar Hill's money conservatively has been key to continuing ambitious projects in the face of a challenging economy. He noted how other cities have ceased projects or postponed them.

"If you treat the money like it's your own and don't spend it just because it's there, you can do so much more," Hail said.

Separately, the council:

* Decided to take proposals until Feb. 1 for six weather warning sirens expected to be installed and operational by April. At an expected cost of $150,000, the unmanned sirens will be activated directly by the National Weather Service;

* Reappointed to the city's planning commission Rosemary Walsh and Jeanne Ferguson, whose terms were set to expire at the end of the year; and

* Approved a 14-page technology policy, governing city employees' use of computers and electronic correspondence.