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Millage increase tabled
Chairman: Staff will investigate other options

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett's chairman said Thursday he would table the talk of tax increases while his staff investigates deep cuts to county services.

At a press conference, Charles Bannister said residents could still face a tax increase because of short revenues in a slow economy, but he said he would table Tuesday's vote on a proposed 25-30 percent increase in the millage rate.

"We ... heard from our citizens about the genuine hardship this increase may cause for some of the citizens of Gwinnett County," Bannister said, referring to public hearings where residents stuffed the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center earlier this week.

After already trimming the budget by $40 million, Bannister said county staff will pore over expenses, and cuts could be drastic, impacting courts, parks, libraries and personnel costs.

Commissioners are still scheduled to hear from the public at a third required public hearing at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, despite Bannister's promise to put off the vote expected for later that day.

A timeline for the budget cuts and setting the millage rate has not been determined, although property tax bills are typically mailed in mid-July.

Bannister said the cuts could be brutal, as he faces the biggest budget gap ever after 34 years in public service.

"Any additional cuts we make will have significant visible and tangible impacts on county services," he said. "You know when you cut a service, somebody will be hurt, and I choose to cut public safety last."

A tax increase isn't off the table, though, he said.

"I'm sure there is a point when our citizens will rather pay another penny or another dollar rather than face a certain cut," he said.

While Bannister maintains his vision of spreading the county police force throughout the county, he said the county would not force cities to close their own police departments, and officials would go back into negotiations over a service delivery strategy dispute that culminated with leaders seeking a higher county property tax rates for people who live in cities.

"I'm glad we've been able to step back from the edge on this," Snellville Mayor Jerry Oberholtzer said after the press conference. "If we agree on this, it'll be a win-win for everybody. ... The county could actually save some money."

Sheriff Butch Conway said he will go back to look at his own budget, but he said he is glad officials seem to be backing away from such a large tax increase after a policy of cutting taxes for more than a decade.

"It sounds like they have come to their senses," he said. "Using public safety as a leverage like they did backfired on them."

District Attorney Danny Porter said people will likely see parks close and he will likely lose five lawyers he wanted to hire to work on drug cases.

"It's going to be tough before it gets easier," he said.

John Cook, a Lilburn man who protested the proposal during the hearing earlier this week, said he was glad to see officials go back to the drawing board.

"That's what they should have done to start with," he said of looking at cuts to the budget. "They've lived on a champagne budget for years, and now they are complaining they might have to cut back."