Gwinnettians spoke, and the commission listened

On Tuesday, commissioners denied a proposed increase in the county's millage rate for 2009 that I did not support. As a result, the commission will have to start fresh on a new budget that limits expenses to current tax revenues. I am confident we can put together a new plan, which will balance our budget without affecting the county's strong commitment to public safety.

I appreciate the time and effort county residents put in expressing their opinions on the tax increase. Your voices really made a difference. But I think there are some lessons that can be learned from this experience, by both residents and the commission.

The first lesson is that the budget determines the tax rate. When the commission passed its 2009 budget in March, it meant an increase in the millage rate was required because the county must balance its budget each year. Prior to the vote, I proposed changes that would have reduced or eliminated the need for a tax increase, which was voted down by the other four commissioners. If county residents are concerned about the amount of taxes they pay for the services that the county provides, the best time to do it is when the budget is being considered.

For its part, the commission needs to do a better job communicating about the budget and taxes. In the future, I will support a more transparent process. For example, the budget and its implications should be available online. Some of the public hearings should be scheduled in the evening, when more residents can attend.

Another lesson can be learned by examining your tax bill. Even though the address at the top says "Gwinnett County, Georgia," most of what's collected doesn't go to the county itself. The largest portion of your property tax bill goes to school taxes. There are also state and possibly city taxes, and the county commission does not control any of them. Residents who are concerned about higher taxes - several cities have announced millage rate increases this year - should make their concerns known to school, city and state officials as well.

Also, take a look at the section of the bill with credits and exemptions. If the bill is for your primary residence and you don't see credits for Gwinnett Homestead and Value Offset Exemption, you are missing valuable tax breaks. For example, the Value Offset Exemption keeps the assessed value of your property constant for county taxes, even if its value increases.

Curiously, this benefit does not apply to school, city or state taxes. Senior citizens and the disabled may qualify for additional exemptions. Contact the Gwinnett Tax Commissioner's office to find out how to take advantage of them, which could save you several hundred dollars on your tax bill.

Many residents also contacted me wondering why the county is spending money on park land and road improvements, thinking that these purchases were partly responsible for the tax increase. These projects, along with new libraries and other infrastructure, are paid for with the penny SPLOST, which can only be used to pay for capital projects. I am working with members of the Gwinnett legislative delegation to see if the law can be modified so some of this money can be used for operating expenses as well.

The millage rate discussion was further complicated by the need to negotiate a new service delivery strategy with Gwinnett's cities. Based on discussions I had with two mayors earlier this week, I am optimistic we will come to an agreement acceptable to all.

Work has begun on budgeting for 2010. I wish I could be more optimistic, but I expect the recession to affect the county next year as much as it did this year. As a result, county government and its residents will face the same difficult choices between cutting services and increasing taxes we just experienced. Let's learn from what happened in 2009 and work together as citizens and commissioners to create a 2010 budget that includes the services residents want at a cost they are willing to pay.

Mike Beaudreau is county commissioner for District 3 which includes the cities of Snellville, Dacula and Grayson, along with portions of Lilburn, Loganville, Lawrenceville and Stone Mountain. E-mail him at Mike.Beaudreau@gwinnettcounty.com.