County should tighten belt, not hike taxes

They rank right up there with jury duty and root canals as least favorite things.

Taxes are rarely greeted with open arms - SPLOST may be the one exception - but the rate increase coming before the Gwinnett County Commissioners on Tuesday especially has rankled the citizenry.

Selling a tax hike is always a tough job, but County Administrator Jock Connell and Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer really have their work cut out for them on this one. That's because the timing and circumstances for a 25 percent rate hike couldn't be worse.

There are several things not to like.

While families struggle to keep their homes and entrepreneurs struggle to keep their businesses, county government's solution to its revenue-expense imbalance is to make it more difficult on homeowners and businessmen by raising property taxes.

Why so much? A 25 percent hike? In this down economy, can I ask for a 25 percent rate hike in the cost of this newspaper or in the price of the advertising we sell? The difference is that the Post's customers can say no. Taxpayers can't say no to a government-approved tax hike.

We've been told that the county has known for several years that 2009 would be the year a hike in the millage rate would be necessary. So why haven't we been preparing? Could we have eased into it, rather than call for a hike of 25 percent? Why haven't we been curtailing expenses instead of adding them?

Two weeks ago, the commissioners agreed to take over the Stone Mountain Tennis Center built for the 1996 Olympics. The previous owner, Stone Mountain Memorial Association, attempted to bring success to the center after the Olympics, but after annual losses of $200,000, it was padlocked two years ago. Is the cost of refurbishing and operating this park something that should be approved the same month that a 25 percent tax hike is proposed?

Three public hearings on the tax increase are being held. But two were held on the same day - the Tuesday after the Memorial Day holiday - and a third, final hearing will be at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, the same day the commissioners vote on the tax hike. It seems if the county really wanted public input, they might have scheduled more convenient and varying times for the public to attend. Regardless of the inconvenience, the public showed up in big numbers to express disapproval.

The county is tying the need for a tax hike to the ongoing service-delivery negotiations it is having with the 15 cities within its borders. Using the service-delivery agreement to justify the rate increase makes things too complicated and convoluted for a public that wants clear answers to simple questions.

For the Post's last commissioner tally, Mike Beaudreau said he'll vote no. Kevin Kenerly said he does not support the tax hike. Shirley Lasseter is still weighing her options. Chairman Charles Bannister penned a guest viewpoint published in the Post on Sunday that indicated his support for the hike. Bert Nasuti's stand is not known.

Knowing how difficult things have been in the private sector, we want our elected commissioners to ask themselves if the county staff has done everything to curtail expenses and to consider the added burden it will bring to their citizenry before they vote.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.