County passes interim budget
Officials to vote on final plan in March

LAWRENCEVILLE - Commissioners on Tuesday passed an interim budget 2.8 percent lower than the original 2009 proposal, but with dwindling sales tax revenues and foreclosures lowering property tax values, more cuts could be in store.

Because county codes require a budget is adopted in January, officials chose to pass a draft that continues 2008 operations but contains few modifications for the new year.

Instead, officials are taking a slow approach to the budget, planning to vote on the final version in March.

"We're looking at high levels of uncertainty," from the new projection of property taxes after foreclosures have brought down the housing market to the impact of state budget cuts, Chairman Charles Bannister said. "This is the time to be methodical and take our time."

In the $890,520,883 operating budget, plans to hire additional police officers were put off, although the hiring of firefighters to open a new station and add a ladder truck were approved.

The interim plan also cuts 115 jobs, the majority of which were already announced because of the closing of a sewage plant and the decreased workload in the county's planning and development office due to the economy.

Although officials are still analyzing 152 initiatives proposed through a recent service study, commissioners approved $26.2 million in cuts, which include the early closing of swimming pools and 10 percent cuts to subsidies such as the children's shelter, the United Way and Board of Health and the Department of Family and Children Services.

The budget also includes the elimination of funding for the Gwinnett Glows Independence Day event, the annual Movie Under the Stars and a government open house.

"In lean times, they were thought of as luxuries, not necessities," Budget Director Chad Teague said.

The library system's subsidy was cut, placing it below 2008 funding levels and placing state funding in jeopardy, but officials said they expect money to be added in March to fund the opening of the Hamilton Mill branch.

The plan passed Tuesday also wipes out a proposed $410,000 reserve for revitalization projects and cut in half the county's contribution to the Chamber of Commerce's Partnership Gwinnett economic development program.

While a hiring freeze will continue at least until mid-year, the budget does not contain furloughs or pay cuts for staff. But it does increase the employee's contribution to health care premiums by about 31 percent. A compensation reserve, officials said, should mean an average net increase after raises of 2.3 percent.

The spending plan cuts the county's use of its rainy day fund from $43 million in the original proposal to $12.2 million. County Administrator Jock Connell said the goal is to reach zero, but he said that may not be possible.

"We're in times we've never seen before. These times are difficult; they are dire," Connell said. "We want to continue operations, but we want to slow things down. ... It's more prudent to look at the whole picture."

Officials said they would analyze revenues and possible cuts in the coming weeks, as well as consider initiatives suggested by commissioners at a recent retreat. A final budget will likely be considered March 3.