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Tax tally: Commissioners polled on millage rate hike - 1 yes, 2 no, 2 ???

LAWRENCEVILLE - After hearing the jeers and cheers from an audience of hundreds Tuesday, Commissioner Kevin Kenerly turned to Gwinnett's county administrator and asked him to come up with a "Plan B" - a way to balance the county budget without raising taxes.

Kenerly said the outrage residents expressed in public hearings has him reconsidering a proposed 25 percent increase to the county millage rate.

Chairman Charles Bannister has said he is in favor of the tax increase, which varies by location, to pay for 372 more police officers and 246 new firefighters/emergency medical technicians over the next five years. But Kenerly and Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said Wednesday they don't support the proposal.

Commissioner Shirley Lasseter said she is weighing her options for next Tuesday's vote, as is Bert Nasuti, who missed the hearings while on vacation with his family but has checked Web sites and read e-mails to get public opinion.

"We've got to run this thing like a business," said Kenerly, who has voted on millage rollbacks for his past 14 years in office. "Part of running a business is listening to your customers."

Kenerly, Lasseter and Beaudreau all described the comments Wednesday as passionate, but said the county's economic woes require action. Cutting the budget, they said, could bring similar fiery reactions.

"I don't want any higher taxes than the rest of them, but I also don't want you to close my library or parks and recreation for my grandkids," Lasseter said. "It isn't going to be easy any way we do it."

Kenerly said he related to the distresses of residents coping with the financial times. His real estate business is down 95 percent, and he said several family members have been laid off.

"I don't want to lay off anybody, but if we raise the millage rates, we are compounding the problem," he said, adding that he drove 10 hours total Tuesday to come home from his family's vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., to attend the hearings. "I don't want to raise the millage rate, but I also want to provide the best services we can."

Nasuti said he has also asked the county staff to look into alternatives to the tax increase, but he said he isn't sure the county has much fat to trim. He said public safety, the focus of the tax increase, is the most important service the county provides.

"The democratic process works. I've heard from a lot of people," he said. "'I'm going to study and be methodical. When Tuesday rolls around, I'll be ready to make a decision."

Beaudreau, who was the only commissioner who voted against the 2009 budget in March that precluded the need for a tax increase, said he would rather cut expenses than raise taxes.

"I knew a lot of folks were going to be frustrated and rightfully so," he said, adding that he was trying to bring city and county leaders together to solve the service delivery dispute, which has county officials seeking to expand its police force into city limits.

"We have a huge operating deficit we have to figure a way out of," he said. "It's going to require further sacrifice, but I'm for (cuts). ... I don't support the millage rate increase, and I won't be voting for it."

Connell said he does not have an alternative plan for the budget yet.

"There's a lot of work that will have to come into that," he said. "I do not have a plan B at this time, although we are looking at multiple options."