Taxes weigh on leaders before vote
Many lawmakers wary as Tuesday's decision looms

LAWRENCEVILLE - Commissioner Mike Beaudreau knows that if he votes Tuesday to add more police officers to the county streets, he'll have to vote to raise taxes this summer.

So the commissioner is carefully weighing the decision on a permanent 2009 budget, which calls for $65 million in additional revenues, possibly from a tax increase.

Beaudreau said he isn't voting for the budget proposal "as is," which calls for the revenues but does not specify how officials would get them. It includes 58 more police officers and 42 more firefighters just months after officials laid off development permit staff and called for a reduction in county spending.

"We all would like to do a lot of things, but we have to operate under the reality of the budget and the fiscal situation as it is," Beaudreau said. "I'm very, very wary of raising the millage rate in the economic times we are in. ... We've been running a lean ship a lot of years, but I don't think this is the way we should be governing."

Commissioner Bert Nasuti said he understands the numbers, especially since the county has rolled back its millage rate by more than 3 mills over the past 14 years, which would have garnered $900 million more for the struggling county government.

"If our costs never ever go down and we have gone 13 or 14 years without a tax increase and we are not going to cut services, we don't have a lot of options," Nasuti said.

While he said he has not decided how he will vote Tuesday, Nasuti said he talked to constituents last week during a speech to the United Peachtree Corners Civic Association. He got a standing ovation when he talked about adding more cops and firefighters and said no one balked at the possible tax increase when they understood that county taxes have gone down for more than a decade.

"I'm not willing to put a citizen at risk to cut a basic service," he said.

Tony Johnson, a Loganville man, said he thinks extra police and firefighters are a good idea, but he said he's not sure how he will pay a higher tax bill.

"I'm retired and I'm on a fixed income, and I already have to budget, so I don't know if I'll be able to pay it or not," he said, expressing anger over the talk of a tax increase. "I feel like before the county commissioners even talk about raising taxes, they need to take a cut in pay. They have boggled everything they have touched."

Johnson said he worries not just that he will suffer, but that his father, also on a fixed income, could lose his house.

"It seems like a stab on the back of Obama, trying to keep people in their homes," he said.

With Tuesday's vote looming, Commissioner Shirley Lasseter said she hates thinking about how a tax increase could impact people.

"We need a tax increase for all the services we are providing, but I don't know if this is the right time for our citizens. People are hurting," she said.

But the county is hurting, too. After a service study designed to cut at least $30 million in government expenses, Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer said the staff "almost balanced the budget." But then a new tax digest projection came in, and leaders learned that the lowering house values of the skidding economy will make the situation even tougher, and adding on the cops and firefighters is seen as necessary.

Comer said the amount of a tax increase will become more evident this summer when the tax digest is set.

But Budget Director Chad Teague said Friday the budget would only call for about a $20 million use of fund balance if taxes aren't raised. The rest of the anticipated $65 million in revenues would "cushion" the county for public safety increases over the next five years.

"We can't give up on public safety," Chairman Charles Bannister said. "In reality, I think the public wants a good, safe community. ... To say yes (to a tax increase) you have to say how much, and I'm not ready to do that. But we will be moving forward, giving the best possible services to the citizens."