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Budget ship needs steady captains during the storm

To Mr. Charles Bannister, Mrs. Shirley Lasseter, Mr. Kevin Kenerly, Mr. Bert Nasuti and Mr. Mike Beaudreau

Commissioners of Gwinnett County

Dear Madam and Sirs:

I do not need to tell you - for you are most certainly aware - that our county is at a tipping point.

Water-tower proclamations that "Gwinnett is Great" and "Success Lives Here" have rung true for a generous time. Today, we are precariously perched atop those towers. Whether we cling to the top or begin a slippery slide rests in your hands.

It is agreed that the economic times dictate that you are being challenged like no other Gwinnett commissioners have been challenged for some time. On smooth seas, it's easy to keep the boat afloat and in the right direction.

You are not on smooth seas. Our county, the jurisdiction you were elected to govern, is at risk of sinking.

Already encumbered by financial troubles, the citizenry couldn't stand another burden. So when asked to pay a 25-percent tax hike, they protested and did so vehemently. You had no choice but to scuttle the plan.

At the time, Chairman Bannister warned us that without new taxes, there would be cuts. The citizenry said fine - cuts before taxes. And you went to work.

Daily, we learn of new cuts. Libraries, parks, law enforcement and nonprofit agencies are just some of the targets recently announced.

Your paths to a balanced budget are to cut or find a compromise of cuts with a tax increase much more modest, we hope, than the 25-percent originally sought. Those critical decisions will chart the course for our county.

Your actions thus far have instilled little confidence.

· Today is July 19. We are more than halfway into the year without a settled budget.

· You have been unable to come to agreement with the cities regarding who will provide services and how those services are paid for - a task that in previous negotiations was accomplished quickly and easily.

· Despite the financial struggles of the people - job loss, pay cuts, home foreclosures, etc. - you refuse to suspend this year's pay raises for county employees.

· You knew the budget passed earlier in the year required a property tax increase (to be fair, Mr. Beaudreau voted nay). Then, in an attempt to rush the hike through, you scheduled three required public hearings within a 24-hour period following a holiday weekend.

These actions have sorely disappointed the people you serve.

As we move forward, I write only to reinforce what those who elected you have the right to expect:

· Govern for the future. Better to suffer short-term pain than a lingering illness.

· Cast aside personal and political consequences. When setting the course for our future. Look past your next election. County employees are certainly a large voting bloc, but a small portion of the county population. Is that why this year's raises continue to be granted? We ask that you consider the preservation of our quality of life over the preservation of your political life.

· Be fair. Do not use these cuts as scare tactics or political chips. Do not use them to sway a fellow commissioner's vote or gain favor with a select few. Base your decisions on no other reason than what is best for the county.

· Do not be punitive. We won't adhere to the don't-tax-but-don't-cut philosophy. But we ask that you not make the highly visible, attention-getting cuts (police, fire, etc.) only to make a point. A plethora of less-essential services remain untouched. We don't think you've taken a hard enough or deep enough look into some of these budgets.

· Preserve the county's AAA bond rating. The county has worn this designation as a badge of honor and benefited greatly from it. Your decisions should protect that.

The economic recession has challenged us all. The simple reality is it now costs more to operate the county than you have receipts coming in. Something must change. You are determining what that "something" is. The decisions won't be easy. Still, this is your job. This is what we elected you to do.

Our tomorrow rests in the decisions you make today.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.