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How deep to slash budget?
Commission back to drawing board after citizen outrage

LAWRENCEVILLE - Ask some of the thousands of Gwinnettians who have made Gwinnett Glows their annual family fireworks tradition each Fourth of July, and some may say the government's budget cuts hurt already.

But after public outrage over a proposed 25 percent increase to property taxes, officials are scouring over the budget again - just months after chopping out $33 million in expenses and adding $7 million in revenue enhancements.

Luxuries like the annual fireworks event and movies in the park were cut. Development inspectors were laid off.

While some officials say the county budget is already lean and more slices will carve to the bone, Lawrenceville Mayor Rex Millsaps said he was astounded to see 4 to 8 percent salary raises for county employees.

That should be the next cut, he said of the raises.

County employees are paying more for their health care after benefits were cut this year after a study of efficiencies in the government.

"I think they have made a valiant effort in trying to cut as much as they can possibly cut without bleeding to death," Commissioner Shirley Lasseter said. "Whether they have cut enough, I can't say," she said before Thursday's announcement to take another look at expenses before considering a tax increase.

Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer said Friday officials already have begun looking for further cuts, but have not come up with the number needed to balance the budget.

First, he said, decisions on how much to keep in the reserve coffers - a key to keeping the government's Triple AAA bond rating - and on employee compensation have to be made before the financial situation is clear.

The 25 percent millage rate hike would have brought in $75 million, but it was also intended to add more than 600 police officers and firefighters over the next five years. Comer said that plan is no longer sustainable without talk of new revenues.

For now, though, the discussions surround budget reductions.

Could cuts go deeper?

Last year, the most painful part of the attempts to keep the county in the black were the layoffs of 100 people out of the county's work force of 5,000. Most of these layoffs came from the development department whose workload had diminished due to crashing housing market.

But are more layoffs on the horizon?

Already this year, projects to replace a police helicopter and renovate government offices were delayed.

Hours for aquatic centers were cut; community schools and school crossing guard programs were eliminated.

Subsidies were slashed - from 10 percent cuts to the Department of Family and Children Services ($82,615), board of health ($165,544), mental health ($85,366) and indigent medical care ($50,000) to cutting in half the Partnership Gwinnett promise ($250,000) and eliminating an annual gift to the United Way ($30,000).

The library system's budget was already cut by 4 percent, but could the next round mean branches are closed?

A concern from the state temporarily stalled a cost-saving move to turn off the lights on Interstate 85, but the move became permanent last week, unless state officials, facing their own budget crisis, can find the money.

Sweeping of curbs and the cutting of grass in parks and along roads has been postponed, but would further cuts mean grass reaches people's waists?

Could the four-day work week for tag offices become even shorter? Could some parks be closed?

John Cook, a Lilburn man who protested the millage rate increase, said he is OK with losing a few parks, saying only a small portion of the population uses the recreational facilities.

Officials have not given an indication of the cuts, although County Administrator Jock Connell said decisions could be rolled out in phases, beginning soon.

'All options are on the table'

When Bannister announced Thursday he would table the controversial millage rate increase, he said officials would continue to look at revenue enhancements as well as cuts. Officials estimate an additional $7 million from increases to ambulance fees, business licenses and other programs.

But he said the new budget upheaval could mean drastic "visible and tangible impacts."

"You know when you cut a service, somebody will be hurt, and I choose to cut public safety last," he said, adding that he continues to have a vision to spread county police services into incorporated areas - even if the city already has its own police force. But Bannister did not comment on the future of the 600 new public safety positions the tax increase would have funded.

"It's all a matter of perspective," said Commissioner Bert Nasuti, adding that some people cherish the local parks while others say the award-winning system has grown too large. "I don't think county government is wasteful, but we'll have to make choices on certain services."

When asked if the county had cut enough from its budget to justify a tax increase, Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said, "absolutely not."

In March, when commissioners considered a budget that would require a tax increase to become balanced, Beaudreau offered a leaner alternative, but his attempt was rebuffed.

"I'm open to a host of options," Beaudreau said, naming the transit system as a possibility for trimming service or increasing rates. "The budget has got to be balanced. All options are on the table."

While Bannister has promised to table the millage rate decision, officials will still hold a public hearing on the proposal at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.

A group of citizens will rally at 7 p.m. Monday at Suwanee's Town Center Park, asking commissioners not to delay the decision but instead to vote the proposed millage increase down.

SideBar: Balancing the budget

The following cuts and revenue enhancements have been adopted by the county government this year:

Expenditures

Aquatic Red Cross training

-$9,000

Assoc. of Retarded Citizens - reduce 10%/-$13,718

Barrier Free - reduce 10%/-$375

Board of Health - reduce 10%/-$165,544

Children Shelter - reduce 10%/-$7,350

Close Beaver Ruin water reclamation facility/-$832,186

Close Best Friend Pool seasonal pool when school starts/-$5,552

Close Dacula Park Pool seasonal pool when school starts/-$2,759

Community School/no funding

Consolidate IT Personnel in the BOC area/-$261,995

Consolidate warehouses/-$250,000

Continue implementation of drought/water restrictions permit/-$100,000

Contribution to capital - close Police Warehouse/-$750,000

Contribution to capital - defer Helicopter Replacement/-$3,019,452

Contribution to capital - defer One Justice Renovation/-$880,487

Contribution to capital - delay Juvenile Court Expansion/-$1,079,690

Convenience fees/-$372,614

Council for Seniors - reduce 10%/-$310

DFACS (Family & Children's Service) - reduce 10%/-$82,615

Discontinue participation in GRPA adult softball/-$3,740

Discontinue providing field marking paint to YAA/-$19,000

Efficiency of organization, outsourcing, etc./-$3,500,000

Eliminate "no impact" maintenance agreements/-$221,865

Eliminate annual county Movie Under The Stars/-$3,195

Eliminate construction manager position/-$92,128

Eliminate dust control/-$120,000

Eliminate printing of payroll advices/-$5,400

Eliminate public pay phones/-$24,975

Eliminate school crossing guard program/-$187,371

Eliminate Soil & Water Use Agreement/-$37,889

Eliminate Upper Ocmulgee River RC&D use agreement/-$35,664

Eliminate vacant admin positions/-$332,864

Eliminate vacant Operat. Maint. Manager/-$69,612

Eliminate vacant/frozen positions in Grounds/Maint. Div./-$466,203

Eliminate weekend janitorial maintenance in the parks/-$25,000

Fund positions through various capital funds/-$1,360,000

Georgia Power tariff analysis/-$500,000

Gwinnett Glows/-$69,302

Human Services Coalition - reduce 5%/-$2,899

Indigent Medical Care - reduce 10%/-$50,000

IT Contractor Personnel Conversion/-$448,594

Latin American Association - reduce 10%/-$1,921

Mental Health - reduce 10%/ -$85,366

Metro Atlanta United Way - reduce 100%/-$30,000

Open House Special Event/-$12,402

P&D Reduction Completion/-$554,324

Partnership Gwinnett - Reduce by 50%/-$250,000

Reduce August pool hours/-$15,840

Reduce contracted extradition services by competitively bidding on demand/-$26,359

Reduce contracted mowing & trimming, ROW & sidewalks/-$350,000

Reduce costs to conduct P&R ground breaking ceremonies/-$20,000

Reduce food budget due to purchase of large quantities/-$28,056

Reduce library subsidy by 4.06 percent/-$801,700

Reduce marketing Fds for Gwinnett Park Life/-$9,260

Reduce office supply budgets/-$431,986

Reduce overtime due to filling vacant positions/-$489,995

Reduce overtime due to new medical screening policy/-$200,000

Reduce replacement uniform funding/-$200,000

Reduce vehicle replacement charges/-$3,999,999

Reduce water budget due to conservation efforts/-$11,060

Reduce West Nile Virus Program by 50%/-$50,000

Revitalization Reserve - Reduce CID study funding/-$410,000

Shift cost of judges subscriptions to law library/-$45,613

Turn off I-85 lighting and Sugarloaf tunnel lighting/-$175,000

Compensation plan/-$1,618,396

Group self insurance/-$3,216,469

Lifeguard re-certification/-$2,048

Reduce fuel/parts reserve/-$2,000,000

Contribution to Capital - 311 Center and UST/-$300,000

Eliminate clothing allowance/-$6,654

Adjust annual vesting payout /-$6,635

Fire - reduce Storm Water Action Program (capital)/-$200,000

Corrections bus (Capital)/-$120,000

Corrections courtyard expansion savings (Capital)/-$13,126

Recorders Court/Juvenile Court (Capital)/-$15,598

Print Shop (equipment and renovation)/-$367,517

Reduce inmate housing reserve/-$750,000

Reduction in OPEB contribution (allocate to other funds appropriately) /-$200

Excess leave payout reduction/$753,352

10% reduction for dead stock/$184,737

Postpone sweeping of curbs & intersections/$97,707

Expenditure total/-$33,238,172

Revenue

Add-on fee to sentences for clerk's costs/$590,400

Ambulance fee increase/$720,812

Aquatic Red Cross training/11,700

Reimbursement for use of county vehicles on PT jobs/$384,928

State Criminal Alien Assistance Program grant/$100,000

Business license fees increase/$3,500,000

Planning & development fees increase/$900,000

Mail fee for processing vehicle tags/$142,000

Gas leak emergency vehicle time reimbursement/$100,000

Signs and other property damage recovery from insurance companies /$50,000

Lifeguard re-certification/$3,840

Revenue loss from closing Best Friend Pool early/$4,005

Revenue loss from closing Dacula Park Pool early/$1,651

Reimburse General Fund for law librarian from Law Library Fund/$84,985

Revenue Total/$6,594,321

Grand Total/39,832,493

Source: Gwinnett County Finance Department