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Chairman's letter warns
of effects of budget cuts

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett's commission chairman reached out to citizens Tuesday, posting a letter about the burgeoning budget crisis on the government's Web site.

With more than $50 million in cuts already incorporated into the 2009 spending plan, officials will consider in a week cutting more than 200 staff members, including 53 police officers, to save $42 million next year.

Proposals would range from closing the county correctional complex to cutting down on park maintenance.

Bannister said he welcomed public participation, after people filled the courthouse earlier this month to protest a proposed tax increase. Commissioners voted down that proposal, which led to the deep cuts to balance the budget.

"I have made a commitment, and the board and staff have agreed, to keep the public through this process informed," Bannister said. "We're in different times, and we need as much opportunity as possible for the people to hear from us, me. ... It needs as much airing as possible."

SideBar: Chairman's letter

Editor's note: The following letter was posted at www.gwinnettcounty.com:

Dear Fellow Gwinnett County Taxpayer:

Earlier this year, your Board of Commissioners approved a 2009 budget and a five-year financial plan designed to fund the Unified Plan and sustain and bolster our dynamic community. Despite incorporating $40 million in cuts and fee increases, that budget recognized the need for a millage rate increase, and in May we conducted three public hearings on that proposed tax increase. The public input we received directed the Board to task county staff with determining how to cut expenditures to avoid a tax increase.

Now we come to the hard work of making the service cuts required by a decision to hold the line on taxes, and I think we have a responsibility to detail for you the service reductions necessitated by these decisions. If implemented, the cuts identified and recommended by county staff will ripple through our budgets and services for many years to come.

As citizens, you will see the result of these decisions in a variety of ways, ranging from noticeable cutbacks in park maintenance to longer fire and EMS response times, as departments attempt to service a still-growing population with a static or reduced workforce. The recommended cuts are detailed in the accompanying tables, and the county commission is scheduled to vote on them on July 21.

If approved, we will eliminate more than 250 full-time positions by the end of 2009 and entirely phase out the Department of Corrections by July 1, 2011. Those state prisoners will be moved to state correctional facilities. Planned growth in our police, fire, and EMS operations will be delayed. The police department's authorized strength of 740 will be cut back to 687, which provides coverage equivalent to our services level in 2003. As our county continues to grow, the impact of these cuts in public safety will inevitably be slower response times.

There will be no staff salary increases in 2010. At the same time, the county's internal support functions - County Administrator, Finance, IT, Human Resources, Support Services, and Law - will be tasked to cut personnel by 15.4 percent and all costs by 9.6 percent. Parks and Recreation will have to cut staffing by 9.1 percent. The hold-the-line budget also means that the county will not be able to fund any new judgeships or expansions in the operations of our constitutional officers through 2014. We would also cut local transit operations by 21 percent and express service by six percent. If these reductions are insufficient to balance the budget in the coming years, we will consider even deeper cuts.

Obviously, these are not trivial decisions, and they will impact the quality of life and economic vitality of Gwinnett County for decades to come. I have been in public service for more than 34 years, as a mayor, a state legislator and, for the past five years, chairman of the county commission. In all that time, I have voted for only one tax hike, an increase in the state's tobacco tax.

I am well aware of the public response generated by the proposed tax increase. I continue to believe it is necessary to meet the public needs of our county. That having been said, the challenge now is to make deep cuts in county operations and service delivery to balance lost revenues.

Respectfully,

Charles E. Bannister, Chairman

Gwinnett County Board of Commissioner