County proposes raising millage rate

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett officials want to take their police services countywide, and they are considering raising taxes to do it.

Officials Monday announced a proposed property tax formula that would represent an average increase of 25 percent for homeowners - $180 to $208 for a $200,000 house.

The June 2 vote could defy a tradition of rolling back property taxes for the past 12 years. But officials say the county's slowed growth and an increasing need for services have caused a need for more money.

"We are undergoing a natural and unavoidable transition from high growth to maturity, and that change holds implications both for services we provide and the way we pay for them," County Administrator Jock Connell said. "I should add that the current economic situation compounds our challenges but it is not a primary cause."

County taxes in past years have been divided mostly to the general fund, with a small portion going into a countywide recreation fund and a fund to pay back bonds.

This year, though, officials have created service districts, allotting specific funds for police, emergency medical and fire services.

With their eyes on enforcing police protection in municipalities as well as unincorporated county jurisdiction, officials said the increase will pay for 372 more police officers and 246 new emergency services personnel.

While the county has been locked in a legal battle with city officials hoping to get a break in county taxes for their residents, the new formula would actually mean city residents pay a higher premium for county services.

Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer said revenue sources such as occupation, alcohol and insurance premium taxes only apply to county residents, so county residents deserve a smaller share of the property tax burden to make service financing equitable.

"It's very difficult for me to comment on the structure of the arrangement," said Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams, who has led the service delivery negotiations for the cities. "I can't get my head around what they mean by countywide policing."

Because the city of Loganville has its own fire department, residents there would pay the EMS and police funds but not the 0.28-mill fire charge.

All other city residents would pay a combined 5.77 mills to the three funds, while county residents would pay 5.33 mills for the services. That is in addition to the 7.05 general fund charge, 0.46 mills for the bond repayment and 1 mill for the recreation fund - an increase from the previous 0.79 mills.

In all, residents in unincorporated Gwinnett would pay an additional 2.87 mills, compared to 2008, while residents in 14 cities would be charged 3.31 mills more and Loganville residents 3.03 mills.

Nine Gwinnett cities have their own police departments, which became a major issue in negotiations for the county's service delivery strategy and has wound up in court. City officials said their residents should pay a lower county tax because county officials don't provide police services there, but county officials countered that they do provide some protection, backing off from traffic enforcement and other matters as a courtesy.

"That's a big question mark in my mind. Our response rate is significantly (better) than the county's. Why do they want to hire hundreds of officers to provide police in cities that are safer and provide better response times?" Williams said. "The current police service arrangement works well."

But Chairman Charles Bannister said the county should take countywide jurisdiction in public safety, and county residents would actually get the break because they pay other taxes, such as occupation taxes, to fund the budget.

"We are planning for the future and eliminating some of the criminal elements out of here," Bannister said. "I think we deserve to give (residents) the best possible police, public safety protection we can moving forward. We can't, with the revenue we have currently."

Officials cut about $33 million from the county budget this year and are continuing to work on cost-saving operations, including a "scrubbing" of take-home vehicles. But to create the boost in public safety, and balance the $1.7 billion 2009 budget - which came in $20 million in the red - leaders still needed about $75 million in additional revenue, Finance Director Aaron Bovos said.

Compounding the situation, the county's tax digest dipped because of the current economic and housing climate. Residential property in Gwinnett dropped about $1.25 billion in fair market value.

Bannister said the issue isn't about past decisions, including the recently constructed $64 million Gwinnett Braves stadium, but is instead about the county's future.

Public hearings for the proposed tax increase will be held at 4:30 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. Tuesday and 10:30 a.m. June 2 at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville. Public information forums will begin one hour before each hearing. County commissioners will consider the proposal following the hearing on June 2.