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Officials fret over bill delays
Lag in tax collection has widespread effect

LAWRENCEVILLE - The possibility of a few weeks delay to pay property taxes may be a blessing to citizens, but it is crippling some local governments as Gwinnett officials wait to set the county millage rate.

The situation had Snellville's mayor contemplating a lawsuit to force the county to issue tax bills, but a meeting Friday quelled the tension, he said.

Gwinnett government's delay on setting a millage rate, which occurred after commissioners rejected a proposed 25 percent tax increase in June, does not simply affect the county's coffers.

It also affects the county school system, the state and the seven cities whose tax revenues are collected by the county tax commissioner. Even though the remaining cities send out their own bills, they are also affected because the county has yet to certify its tax digest, from which rates are based.

"We're cognizant of all the needs out there," County Administrator Jock Connell said, adding that commissioners are hamstrung from making a decision while a judge mulls issues relating to a service delivery dispute with city officials. "We are trying to take all those needs in consideration and do what's best for the whole community. ... We realize we need to get the tax bills out."

The situation caused Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks to write a letter to local mayors urging a settlement in the case and offering three legal options to force some action.

In the letter, Wilbanks said the school system would have to borrow money if the situation lingers over the next 30 to 45 days.

"Clearly the economic downturn has challenged all of us in ways we never imagined; but it is in such difficult times that leadership is most needed to ensure decisions are made that are in the best interest of all those we serve," Wilbanks wrote.

The superintendent suggested the Board of Education would get involved in the negotiations and possibly get involved in the court fight.

"I propose that all parties give serious consideration to the options and immediately act on the one that offers the most appropriate and quickest resolution to the tax bill matter. With so much at stake, what should not be an option is inaction," he wrote. Adding in an outline of the legal options, he said, "The Board of Education and I understand the seriousness of this matter and appreciate your efforts to resolve it. We do not wish to intrude into that matter, but must emphasize the urgency of getting tax bills issued so the revenue to operate the school district can begin to flow."

While a resolution urging action on the tax bills was listed on the agenda for Monday's Snellville city council meeting, Mayor Jerry Oberholtzer said he has been swayed against pursuing legal action at this point after a "positive" meeting between county and city officials Friday.

"We have enough cash on hand to go for a month ..." Oberholtzer said of the city's finances. "I think we have an understanding. It went a long way toward calming the water between us."

According to Paula Martin, spokeswoman for the Tax Commissioner's Office, people would be given 60 days to pay a tax bill once it has been issued.

The office is responsible for collecting taxes for the cities of Berkeley Lake, Dacula, Grayson, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Snellville and Sugar Hill.

Lilburn Mayor Diana Preston said her city has enough money in reserves to wait for the bills, but she said she was sympathetic to the school tax issue.

"It puts the schools in a bad situation," she said. "We're just trying to get it resolved."

Connell said commissioners could take up the millage rate as early as August, but the situation depends on the judge's ruling.

"We're looking at every option we can to get those bills out as quickly as we can without jeopardizing our position in (the lawsuit)," he said.