'09 budget calls for tax increase
Base rates for water and sewer also raised

LAWRENCEVILLE - For the first time in more than a decade, officials passed a county government budget that calls for a tax increase in 2009 property tax bills.

The $1.71 billion budget approved Tuesday includes about $33 million in cuts based on a service study from last year and it cuts 108 jobs, mostly from the planning department that has seen reduced business because of the faltering economy.

But leaders added a total of 58 police officers, 75 firefighters and 15 people in the county prosecutor's and judges' offices.

"The budget addresses the needs of this community and we need to pass it," Chairman Charles Bannister said. "We cannot destroy what we've created the past four years in public safety."

Bannister, along with Commissioners Shirley Lasseter, Bert Nasuti and Kevin Kenerly approved the budget, with Commissioner Mike Beaudreau voting against it.

While an increase in property taxes has not been determined, the budget calls for $62 million in additional revenues. Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer said officials estimate the taxes could increase $12 to $13 a month on a home valued at $200,000.

The revenues would be used to increase police and fire protection for the next several years, and officials said it could be offset by a reduction in homeowners' insurance costs based on the increased fire protection.

"It had good points and bad points," Lawrenceville man Edwin Johnson said of the budget. But he said a raise in taxes could really hurt homeowners. "There are people in this county who are just hanging on."

The board Tuesday also approved raising the base rate for water service by $0.20 per month and adding a $5 base rate for sewer service, along with changes to increase conservation rates.

During the budget debate, board members rejected a call from Beaudreau to cut subsidies to organizations such as DFACS and the library system, which were already cut in the budget, and pull $1.5 million from the transit system and $1.5 million for salary adjustments to balance the budget.

"It would have kept us solvent, and we would have had a balanced budget," Beaudreau said. "It's regrettable that politics got in the way."

Commissioners did approve a call by Bannister to move capital projects, including the opening of a Grayson police precinct, into future years. Beaudreau said the moves seemed politically motivated since three of the five projects were in his southern Gwinnett district.

The move Tuesday comes two months after commissioners adopted an interim spending plan, giving officials time to study more service cuts and other issues in the dwindling economy.

County Administrator Jock Connell said officials have foreseen the need for a tax increase for years.

"We have lived off growth for a number of years. There are some good things with that and there are some bad things when growth stops," he said. "What we've attempted to do here was balance service needs with revenues with cuts. ...

"(This budget) gives us a platform and a foundation that we can continue to steer this ship through rough waters. But this is not the end of our decisions."