County, cities may lose stimulus
Failure to renew agreement means qualifications for funds in question

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett and its cities could lose out on state grants and permits - possibly even the national stimulus package - if officials allow an agreement on service delivery to expire this weekend.

The Gwinnett Municipal Association, which represents the county's 15 cities, and county leaders have been negotiating since 2006 on a new service delivery strategy, which is mandated by the state to ensure residents don't experience double taxation or overlapping services.

The 10-year current agreement expires today, giving leaders until Monday to turn in an agreement with the state. If that doesn't happen, the county and all 15 cities will lose their status as qualified local governments and all the state grants and permits that go along with that, Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams said.

City councils had prepared for months to sign a two-month extension to the negotiations, but Board of Commissioners Chairman Charles Bannister told them last week he would only agree to a yearlong extension.

"We have a deadline approaching. We've got to sit at a table and work things out," said Williams, who is the current municipal association president.

Bannister said he does not plan to sign the proposed two-month extension.

"The truth is, a two-month time frame, unless there is something modifying the discussion, you are no better off," he said, adding the discussions are "moving in a direction of being nonqualified and work at it through that basis."

Williams said the problem exists because city leaders want to cut county property taxes for people who live in cities and do not receive certain police and transportation services from the county.

The leaders agree on 58 services divided amongst the 16 governments, but Williams said people in Suwanee shouldn't have to pay for county uniform patrols when the city provides that service. He acknowledges that some police functions such as SWAT and K-9 units from the county are used in the city and said he does not want to forego all the taxes, but county and city leaders do not agree on the amount of money residents owe each government.

Bannister said state code provides for the process, and he isn't sure if the situation will impact stimulus funds.

"There are a lot of balls in the air. I'm willing to wait and see what Monday and Tuesday brings," he said. "We want to resolve it as much as anybody does. ... We'll get there. It may take a little longer."

City leaders, he said, have agreed to extensions requested because of county elections, because of the economy, service studies and other situations, but he said three years is long enough.

"We've done everything in our power to move forward on resolution with these things," Williams said. "The cities want every citizen in Gwinnett County to be taxed fairly for the services they receive. ... We want every Gwinnett taxpayer to pay their fair taxes and only their fair taxes."

Randy Meacham, the association's director, said city officials have acknowledged the county's issues in balancing its budget, but he said a tax change could be negotiated to benefit everyone.

But delaying the agreement, especially with the expiration this weekend, means every municipality including the county government would lose its qualified local government status, taking away the ability to get grants and permits from the state, including any stimulus money.

If the document isn't delivered to the state Department of Community Affairs Monday, the status is gone for at least the entire month of March.

"We got backed in the corner," Buford Chairman Phillip Beard, who was assigned to negotiate with the county, said. "I don't know who is going to be the bad guy."

But his city alone could lose stimulus money to rehab the city's water and sewer plants as well as a request to widen Buford Highway.

County stimulus projects could include the widening of the Ga. Highway 324 bridge over Interstate 85, an extension to Sugarloaf Parkway and an extension to McGinnis Ferry Road.

"We just want them to recognize there is an inequity and we want a plan," Beard said. "I don't know what it's going to take to light a fire under the county. You need to sign it, if for nothing else but to buy more time. ... We're an active city, and we don't need to be disqualified."

Commissioners Bert Nasuti and Kevin Kenerly said they were relying on the county staff to handle negotiations and said they trust the chairman's decision.

"(Officials) are playing a little Ping-Pong here," Kenerly said. "They are all our citizens, and we're trying to do the best we can for all of them."

Kenerly said all the cities have a different vision, but Beard and Williams said mayors are united on the issue.

"This shouldn't be political. It should be what's best for the citizens," Kenerly said.

Nasuti agreed, but he said he wanted to follow the chairman's lead.

"I think ultimately we'll get it resolved, but there hasn't been a meeting of the minds," he said.