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Opposing views: Millage rate increase

PRO: BOC decision key to doing 'people's business'

By Charles Bannister

"Government is the people's business," Ronald Reagan remarked. "And every man, woman and child becomes a shareholder with the first penny of tax paid."

Reagan's comment dates back 42 years to his inauguration as California governor. But it describes pretty accurately how we approach managing Gwinnett County government and its $1.7 billion annual budget.

Our county commissioners, administrators and department directors run county government like a business - and we focus every day on the fact that we are accountable to 800,000 resident shareholders.

I think Reagan would be particularly proud of our conservative spending and the fact that the county has rolled back property tax millage rates over the past 12 years by 3.98 mills, or 26 percent. The other commissioners and I are proud of this record as well, and we are united in a commitment to continued fiscal prudence.

Earlier this year, in fact, we made $40 million in budget adjustments - including cuts and fee increases - and implemented the first reduction in work force in county history. We've also worked hard to create a rational plan for Gwinnett County's future, developing and adopting our 2030 Unified Plan.

But we have known for several years now that 2009 would be the year when the county's operating costs would outpace our revenues - and that was before the economic downturn. As a result, the Board of Commissioners is considering the extent to which the property tax millage rate should increase to fund county operations in 2009 and beyond.

The county's overall property tax rate is 31.77 mills. More than two-thirds of that amount goes to the school system and state government and to retire various bond issues. Less than one-third goes for county operations, including police and fire services, courts, parks and recreation, transportation, health and human services, libraries, and planning.

To continue funding those operations at appropriate levels, we need to raise county taxes between 2.87 and 3.31 mills, depending on where a property is located. As a result, the average tax bill (based on a $200,000 home) would increase about $16 a month, or about $194 annually.

Even with the increase, the county portion of property taxes will be lower than it was 12 years ago. And there are not many things you can say that about. Consider a trip to the grocery store a decade ago compared to today.

We recognize that we're going through one of the most difficult economic periods of our lifetimes and that any millage increase will be tough.

But the alternative is tougher: making even deeper cuts in the budget would weaken many of the services, programs and infrastructure that make Gwinnett a great place to live and work.

The millage increase being proposed will:

· Enable much-needed police, fire and emergency department staff increases that will keep Gwinnett County safe by putting 372 more police officers on the streets and cutting ambulance and fire response time by staffing five new stations through 2013, which will save lives and save residents money on home insurance.

· Continue our model economic development program and fund infrastructure improvements along the Interstate 85 corridor that will increase property values and encourage businesses to locate in Gwinnett - a return on the county's investment that helps keep residential taxes low over the long term.

· Help us maintain our commitment to preserving greenspace and move ahead with long-range plans for a park system that the National Recreation and Park Association named the best in the nation.

These actions position Gwinnett County to bounce back quickly from the recession and lead the local recovery.

We will be conducting public information forums and public hearings on these tax increases over the next couple of weeks, and we strongly encourage you, as taxpayers and shareholders in Gwinnett County, to attend, learn more, and let us know what you think.

Gwinnett County is strong because of the businesslike and fiscally conservative way we've managed government during prosperous times. We have made great advances, but we now must find a way to sustain that progress.

For more information about Gwinnett County's property tax millage and the public hearings, visit www.gwinnettcounty.com.

Charles Bannister is Board of Commission Chairman.

SideBar:

CON: Higher taxes hurt during recession

By Dave Williams

As mayor of Suwanee, I can attest firsthand that local governments are profoundly affected by these challenging economic times. I can also promise that the Suwanee City Council is doing everything in its power to hold the line on taxes.

People are hurting. Many have lost jobs or taken pay cuts. Businesses are facing unprecedented challenges. Nonprofits are trying to survive. Everyone seems to be doing whatever they can keep costs down. Well, not everyone.

Earlier this week, our Gwinnett County Commissioners announced their plan to raise your property taxes by more than 25 percent - 30 percent if you live in a city - so they can expand their 2009 budget by about 10 percent over their 2008 budget. We don't have the exact figures because they still won't publish the budget they adopted March 3.

You see, even though we're nearly halfway into the fiscal year, without their budget document, the public is being kept in the dark. Our commissioners are ballooning county government in the worst economy anyone can remember.

Forty-three million of this enormous $87 million property tax increase isn't even planned to be spent in 2009 - they're socking it away in something called "working capital reserve." Our commissioners have decided it's better to overtax you and hoard those dollars than for you to pay your mortgage, health care or for your kids' education.

Under the guise of public safety, our commissioners have hatched a curious plan to hire 170 more officers to start patrolling inside cities that are already policed effectively by the cities. This wasteful and dangerous duplication will require another $17 to 20 million of your money in new taxes - can't know for certain without the budget. Sheriff Butch Conway calls their scheme a "terrible mistake."

Growing the size of government in these economic times is exactly the wrong thing for any elected body. It's quite obvious that our commissioners are oblivious to the reality that the rest of us face. We're cutting back, yet they're expanding their county largesse and sending us the bill. And it's going to be a whopper.

State law requires our commissioners hold three public hearings at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center before they set these new tax rates. Two are scheduled for Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day. The third is June 2, after which the county will vote on the new tax rate.

I plan to attend all of them, and hope you will, too.

Have we learned anything from the county's recent "trash plan" episode? This time, will we make our voices heard to our elected commissioners before they take action on this outrageous tax hike?

If not, brace yourself for a doozie of a county tax bill.

Dave Williams is the mayor of Suwanee.