Budget cutbacks continue
Employees, prison on chopping block

LAWRENCEVILLE - Less than two weeks after library officials said they would close branches two days a week, commissioners will decide if two branches will be closed altogether.

The possibility is among a list of $20 million in cuts commissioners will consider Tuesday that could lead to the retirement or reduction of 250 county employees, including 53 police officers and 52 firefighters, and the closing of the county prison.

The news, which has come over the past week, has some people begging commissioners for relief.

Commissioner Bert Nasuti said he has received a surprising number of e-mails from people asking for another tax increase to be considered less than two months after people filled the county courthouse to protest a proposed 25 percent millage rate hike.

"They can all make a really good case for basically every inquiry," Nasuti said. "At the end of the day, if you don't have the revenue, you have to make the cuts. It's very hard to choose one cut over the other."

The impacts could be severe, as Chairman Charles Bannister has warned for weeks.

With call volumes increasing and losing up to 53 officers, Police Chief Charlie Walters said he has little choice but to disband the county's quality of life, DUI, park police and crime prevention units just so he can stretch the service to respond to 911 calls and investigate crime.

"The bottom line is, when someone calls 911, I've got to have a car (unit) to send there," he said. "We just have to realign our priorities and go back to the basics, no frills."

The specialized units, he said, do a lot to prevent crime, and Nasuti and Commissioner Mike Beaudreau have lamented the possibility of the demise of the qualify of life unit, which is designed to revitalize neighborhoods and business centers.

"We're going to do everything possible to keep the community safe," Walters said. "But we are going to have to deal with the hand we are dealt."

If the cuts are made, he said, the ratio of officers to residents will decline to 2003 levels, before officials made a big push to combat crime.

"I think we've made a lot of progress in the last few years. It won't take long to dismantle it," he said, adding that response times will be impacted.

The plan also calls for three fire stations currently under construction to remain empty, and Fire Chief Steve Rolader said last week the move could impact insurance rates and even lives, as the goal for ambulance response times would change to six minutes.

Other elements of the proposal, much of which would be implemented in 2010, include closing the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on weekends, closing the Peachtree Corners police substation, consolidating polling locations and outsourcing functions of the tax assessor's office.

"It's just like running a business. When you are a $2-billion company, you have to look at everything you are doing," Commissioner Kevin Kenerly said. "It's not just going on in Gwinnett County. California is bankrupt. ... It's just tough."

Library officials have not decided which branches would be closed, although they have delayed the opening of the Hamilton Mill location, which is currently under construction. Spokeswoman Michelle Long said the decision would be based on usage and the proximity of the branch to other locations.

Officials are also considering eliminating community programs at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center, closing community pools for a day each week, and not opening the Dacula pool next summer as well as canceling the popular Christmas tree lighting event in Lawrenceville in 2010.

"(The cuts) have to be looked at very carefully because they have ripple effects," Beaudreau said, pointing out that the decisions will be revisited next year when the 2010 budget is adopted.

While he hopes to pore over information over the weekend to consider the proposal, later this year, he hopes to work with residents through a budget committee to consider the spending plan.

"People can't accuse us of not turning over every stone possible," he said. "In the end, I think we're going to be better for it. Challenges can bring out the worst, but it can also bring out the best in us.

"In the meantime, there will be some short-term and some mid-term pain."

SideBar: At a glance

Commissioners on Tuesday will decide on about $20 million in proposed cost-saving measures to fill in a budget gap for future years.

Most of the following measures would take effect in 2010, although commissioners will consider the final 2010 spending plan in January.

· Reduction of 267 employees, including 53 police officers and 52 firefighters

· Eliminate pay increases

· Delay opening of three fire stations

· Closure of the Gwinnett County Correctional Complex by July 2011

· Elimination of work release program at prison in 2010

· Closure of two library branches

· Disbanding the police department's quality of life, DUI, park police and crime prevention units

· Closure of the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on weekends

· Closure of the Peachtree Corners police substation

· Consolidation of polling locations

· Elimination of grants to five nonprofits and reduce five others by 10 percent

· Eliminating of programs at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center

· Closure of community pools for one day each week and closure of the Dacula pool

· Cancellation of the Christmas tree lighting event in 2010

· Delay opening of Stone Mountain tennis complexes and Isaac-Adair House