Taxpayers caught in dispute
County, cities continue to disagree about service fees

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County has a police department, but so do many of the cities within its borders.

So should a Lawrenceville resident, who pays city taxes for police service, have to pay the same county tax rate as someone served by the county department?

That is the question that has plagued officials for more than two years, as county and city bureaucrats and politicians negotiated a state-mandated service delivery strategy, which is meant to outline services and avoid double taxation.

Last week, when officials missed the state deadline for the strategy, the county and all 15 cities faced sanctions, which could include losing permits, grants and stimulus funds. But a court order may have staved off that danger.

Now officials will have to face a judge to mediate the strategy and decide how taxes will be divided.

"I think we're close," Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer said, although county leaders declined to sign off on a two-month extension to the negotiations. "I think we've just gotten dug in."

Millage malaise

The service delivery strategy encompasses 60 services - from trash collection and street lighting to fire and ambulance service - but only two have created the impasse, police and transportation.

A third, planning and development, has been resolved, Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams said, since the economy forced the county to cut dozens of staff members in its permits office. The service, he said, would now be funded with permits and not tax dollars, making the tax conversation moot.

But with police and transportation, county and city officials can't agree on how much money city residents are overpaying.

Williams estimates the number at about $10 million, but Comer said it is closer to $2 million. After all, cities continue to get support from the county police in terms of the SWAT team, large investigations and other services. For transportation, the county provides traffic lights and state and county officials split services on major roads, but the cities are still responsible for paving neighborhood streets.

Randy Meacham, the managing director of the Gwinnett Municipal Association, which represents the local cities, prepared a possible millage rate break of 0.70 mills per $1,000 of property value for transportation in all 15 cities. A break of 2.24 mills per $1,000 of property value is proposed for those cities with police service - Auburn, Braselton, Duluth, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Loganville, Norcross, Snellville and Suwanee.

Williams said city officials have been willing to debate the numbers.

True costs

But Comer said the county isn't interested in having cities set county millage rates.

"We're ready to implement service districts," Comer said about the alternate rates for cities, admitting that the county did not support the idea at the beginning of the negotiations. "But somebody wants to set our rates for us. ... We will build our millage rates. We will build our service districts."

The county's pricing model "examines true service costs," a document said. It looks at costs based on residential areas, where costs are greater, and commercial, where taxes more than pay for the service.

It determined the residents of Berkeley Lake, Grayson and Rest Haven, mostly residential areas where homeowners do not pay enough taxes to cover the service costs, should actually pay a higher rate than the county's millage rate, although those were adjusted to equal the rate for people in unincorporated areas.

Other cities had varying rates for county property taxes, from a 0.13 mills break for Sugar Hill to a 3.96 mills break for Lawrenceville.

Comer said both sides have dug in to their position.

"It's unfortunately been about the money, and we've got to talk at one point about service," he said.

Williams said city officials are flexible, but they are tired of delaying the discussions after five requests from the county to wait.

"We believe there are property owners who are paying county taxes for services they don't receive from the county," he said. "We want every Gwinnett taxpayer to pay their fair taxes and only their fair taxes. ... We want to come to the table and talk about it."

For years, municipal leaders have prided themselves on their abilities to work together. Just last year, mayors and county commissioners agreed on a way to divide sales tax revenues throughout the governments. But this time the negotiations have landed in court.

A hearing date for the mediation has not been set. Superior Court Judge David E. Barrett of the Enotah Judicial Circuit, which includes Towns, Union, Lumpkin and White counties, was appointed to the case late Friday. Barrett is the chief judge of the circuit.

Last week, the municipal association hired a law firm and city councils are meeting to determine if they will hire the same firm.

"We are trying to prevail," Williams said. "We are trying to have a fair resolution reached."