Chairman: County strong despite economic woes

DULUTH - Despite an economy that has county officials slashing services and laying off workers, Chairman Charles Bannister said the county's position is "remarkably strong," during his annual State of the County address Thursday.

Bannister did not sugar-coat the situation, describing specifics on the downturn of building activity and revenues.

But he stayed upbeat, recounting the 2008 successes in lowering the crime rate and in the accepting a national award for the park system.

"It's hard to deliver bad news," said Judy Waters, a former commissioner in the audience. "(But) I think overall there was a sincere honesty in the presentation."

As charts showing declining revenue were projected on a screen, Bannister went into detail on the Board of Commissioners' decision to adopt an interim budget earlier this month, putting off plans to increase public safety jobs while officials weigh out options to balance the budget.

"To come before you and pretend that the economic struggle of the nation and our state has no impact on Gwinnett County would be foolish," Bannister told the crowd of more then 400 civic and business leaders. "In order to be good stewards of taxpayers' money, we have to recognize, and even embrace, the fact that when revenue is down and operation costs are up, changes have to be made. The status quo has become unsustainable and, therefore, unacceptable."

Bannister also spoke to the controversies of the past year in the minor league stadium construction and controversial trash plan, which was thrown out in court.

On the stadium, under construction north of Lawrenceville, where the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves are expected to begin play in April, Bannister challenged critics to wait until a few seasons have passed.

"The stadium is an economic development project that is a wise investment in our future, one that will benefit us tremendously over the long haul," he said.

On the other hand, residents' complaints have been heard on the trash issue, he said, telling the audience that officials still believe in the goals of the plan - to reduce waste and increase recycling options - as they review it and create a new policy.

The former House member beginning his second term on the county commission took time out to call on legislators to fund an improved state trauma system.

And he described declining water revenues, the drought and debt service obligations as creating "the perfect storm" in water issues.

The biggest applause for the speech came when Bannister recognized Amiziah Smith, a correctional officer who saved two people from a burning car after witnessing an accident while driving a work-detail bus. Smith won a Medal of Valor, becoming the first corrections officers to win the award in the department's 50 year history.

"Folks, we're in a fight. However, I can think of no better group of commissioners, public servants and citizens to be in this fight with," Bannister said, adding that he hoped he could say in his 2010 address that the economy has turned around.

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