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Millage rate increase denied
BOC votes unanimously to hold off tax hike

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County's millage rate will not go up - at least not yet.

Commissioners unanimously voted against a proposed 25 to 30 percent millage rate hike Tuesday, a week after crowds began filling meetings and contacting officials to protest.

But with a budget gap of up to $75 million, officials warned that service cuts could be steep to balance the budget.

"I'm glad," Buford resident Leana Roach said after the afternoon vote. "In this day and time, you don't know if you are going to have a job tomorrow. I'm glad to see they are going to try to help us. Somebody needs to listen."

Earlier Tuesday, nearly 500 people crammed into the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center's auditorium to sound off about the issue during the last of three public hearings.

"To say this nation is in perilous times would be a gross understatement," Loganville resident Carl Newell said. "What we need today are public servants."

Officials had floated the tax increase to hire more than 600 additional police officers and firefighters and balance the budget as revenues dwindle in a down economy, but they said the concerns of taxpayers were heard.

"We listen, we hear and we understand," Chairman Charles Bannister said. "We will cut. We will cut, and we will hear from those who get cut. It's not a winning situation for any of us."

But Bannister said the discussions of a tax increase aren't over. He said cuts could affect people's jobs as well as playgrounds and libraries that have become cherished by residents, so the millage rate debate will continue.

County Administrator Jock Connell said he hoped to have a reduced budget proposal in the hands of commissioners within a month. Just months after passing a $1.7 billion budget with $33 million in cuts, Connell said he was unsure exactly how much would need to be trimmed in this year's spending plan, although the millage rate increase would have raised $75 million.

Property tax bills are typically mailed on July 15 and due by the end of the year, so the millage rate could be set sometime this summer.

Harvey Kuykendall of Snellville said he believed there were places to save in the budget. He said officials should cut an annual retreat to Young Harris.

"The commissioners have a tough job," he said. "You need to cut that (retreat) before you cut libraries and swimming pools."

During the hearing, some people complained about proposed employee raises and a few said police officers were already in excess. Others said commissioners, all members of the GOP, paid too much for parkland and made mistakes in a recent trash plan and the construction of a minor-league stadium.

"I don't think they realize the audacity to want this increase when people are suffering," said John Pirhalla of Snellville. "These people are not acting as Republicans."

Bannister encouraged people to stay involved in the process, and Commissioners Shirley Lasseter and Bert Nasuti chastised residents for harsh criticism and hostility before the vote was even taken. Commissioners also said disparaging remarks about the county staff were uncalled for.

"We appreciate hearing what you want to tell us," Lasseter said. "But let's realize we are all in this together, and it's only as a team in Gwinnett County we will make it through this economic downturn."