Residents oppose millage rate hike
Hundreds turn out to public meetings on tax increase

LAWRENCEVILLE - Ever since she lost her waitressing job, Connie Johnson has eaten peanut butter sandwiches and sold her belongings at yard sales to make ends meet each month.

"I'll sell every stick of furniture I've got before I let my home go into foreclosure," the Snellville resident said.

But if property taxes increase on her Chesterfield Court home, Johnson said she can't afford it. Her homeowners insurance has already increased; even a $90 hike in county property taxes on her $125,000 house would be too much.

Hundreds of people packed two 30-minute public hearings Tuesday to tell Gwinnett County commissioners to vote against the proposed millage rate increase. Depending on where in the county a property is located, county property taxes could increase between 2.87 and 3.31 mills.

"We are in a beans and rice economy," Duluth resident Pat Quigley said during the first public hearing. "You're not acting like it."

Quigley said he thinks it would be irresponsible for commissioners to raise taxes, whether it be to add police officers, support the parks or cover mismanagement.

"The times just don't call for that type of governing," Quigley said after the meeting. "The times call for very conservative fiscal budgeting, and as long as families are cutting their budgeting, the county should do the same."

Several residents of cities with police departments said they disagree with the county's proposal to hire additional police officers to patrol within the limits of those municipalities. Some urged the county to return to mediation with the cities about the service delivery dispute, which revolves around services such as police and transportation and how residents are taxed.

"I'm heartened we have had so many people who educated themselves and wanted to send a very clear message to the elected leaders in Gwinnett County," Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams said of the turnout at the hearings.

It's discouraging, however, that the county has not publicly released its budget, Williams said. (A budget overview is available on the county's Web site, www.gwinnettcounty.com.)

Nearly everyone at the hearings appeared to support those who asked commissioners to vote against the proposed millage rate increase. The crowd frequently broke out into applause and cheered as dozens of people who spoke relayed a common message: Now is not the time to raise taxes.

The crowd was not so supportive when Lawrenceville resident Lois Allen told the board "to look very carefully at all options," including a tax increase, to maintain the county's quality facilities and services, such as the parks. Allen is the chairwoman of the county's Recreation Authority.

Lindsey Monroe, who spoke during the second public hearing, said it was disappointing the commissioners didn't allow more time for the public to speak. Monroe, a Norcross resident who works three jobs, said she took time off from work to attend the 6:15 p.m. hearing.

"It makes me wonder if they really care," she said.

The Board of Commissioners will hold a final public hearing at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday before voting on the proposed increase.

SideBar: At a glance

The following information was included on a handout titled "Fact Sheet: 2009 Millage Rate Increase" at the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners' public hearing on the proposed tax increase.

· Gwinnett County government property taxes pay for the following essential services: countywide police/sheriff, courts, emergency medical (EMS), rescue and fire protection, transportation, parks and recreation, and health and human services.

· The $1.7 billion budget adopted by the Board of Commissioners earlier this year included a county property tax millage rate increase; the proposed increase is between 2.87 and 3.31 mills, depending on where in the county a property is located.

· Before considering a tax increase, commissioners charged staff to look rigorously at services and costs, resulting in $40 million in adjustments to the 2009 Budget, including service cuts and fee increases - and the first layoffs in county history.

· The proposed increase is vital in that it maintains core service levels and provides needed increases in police, fire protection and EMS services over the next three years, including more than 600 new public safety positions

- 372 police officers through 2012

- Five new fire stations with 246 emergency services staff through 2013

· Over the past 12 years, county commissioners have rolled back property taxes by 3.98 mills, or 26 percent.

· Gwinnett County's growth has begun to slow in recent years, transitioning from a high-growth county to a more mature area.

· While the current economic downturn is compounding our funding challenges, it is not a primary cause.

· County government taxes make up less than 1/3 of the total property taxes paid by Gwinnett County property owners (2/3 goes to local schools, 1 percent to state government).

· This millage increase will only affect the county government portion (1/3) of the tax bill.

· Even with the proposed increase, the county government's millage rate will still be lower than it was 12 years ago.

n For the average Gwinnett County home ($200,000), the proposed increase would raise taxes around $180 a year - $15 per month or about 50 cents a day.

· After the increase, the average property owner will pay roughly $2.50 a day for all county-provided services mentioned above.

· Property owners will see the rate increase in the July 2009 tax notices.

Source: Gwinnett County Government