All year, county officials have struggled with balancing the books.
Even with earlier projections about a need for more money to provide a high level of service from police to parks, the tough economy caused even more ire, as the county's property tax digest began to dive.
Officials proposed a tax increase this summer, but it was defeated by commissioners and further cuts to the government began. More than 200 jobs were lost, fire stations were left vacant, library hours were dropped, and commissioners began to feel another outcry from the public.
Now, another tax proposal is on the table.
Officials say the cuts to the back-office departments such as finance, human resources and support services will remain, but the 2.28 mill proposal will allow officials to replace police officers, open the vacant fire stations and more.
Because the county already issued temporary tax bills, which are due today, if the tax increase is approved, officials expect to send out a second set of bills with the 2.28 mill levy.
Officials are hosting public hearings on the proposal at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Nov. 23 and at 7 p.m. Dec. 1. The commission is expected to formally consider the rate at the Dec. 1 called meeting.
Here is a look at the services the proposal will fund and arguments for and against each item.
Pro: "Less police leads to more crime and blight. Fewer firefighters lead to higher insurance premiums. Less library dollars lead to reduced hours and closures. Abrupt cuts to seniors, disabled, children's shelters and health services agencies throws these communities into disarray before contingency plans can be created. Closing recreational facilities creates myriad problems for families and team sports. Allowing future deficits leads to higher costs of doing business. And no money for right of way mowing reflects poorly on our community. But we can protect all of this for less than a dollar a day mill increase. Protecting these services helps us recruit the NCR's of the world bringing high-wage jobs for our citizens -- jobs that are needed now more than ever. The Gwinnett Chamber's mission is to create jobs while enhancing our quality of life. The services restored by the 2.28 mill increase positions us best to achieve this."
-- Jim Maran, Duluth, President and CEO of Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce
Con: "As a homeowner, I'm tired of carrying the burden. Gwinnett and the other counties in the state are going to have to find other sources of revenue. They are also going to have to determine what services are essential and then come up with other means of delivering the non-essential services. Because of this economy, there are citizens in the county who are unemployed. There are citizens in the county who are under employed and there are citizens who are seeing their incomes reduced. It is simply an injustice to increase taxes on these citizens when the county is spending money that it doesn't need to be spending. Anyone can run a business, or a county when times are good. It's times like these that separate great leaders from the rest of the pack."
-- Keith Roche, Lawrenceville, Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government
While this summer's proposed tax increase would have beefed up the county police force to begin patrols in cities, this proposal would mostly replace cuts to the police force that had been imposed by the falling economy.
If the tax increase passes, it would pay for 58 uniform patrol officers, which will replace many of the cops who left due to a retirement incentive this fall, and re-establish the county quality of life unit.
Contributions to replace police cruisers and maintain the radio system, which had been cut due to lack of funds, are also proposed.
Pro: "Having funding reinstated to the police department is paramount to continuing the success of our county. More officers on the streets means increased visibility which is a huge crime deterrent, faster response times and the ability to perform specialized functions like parks policing, DUI enforcement and quality of life operations."
-- Michael Stebnicki, of Lawrenceville, a 2008 graduate of the Gwinnett County Citizens Police Academy, who is a board member of the group's alumni assocation.
Con: "I do not believe the millage rates should be raised to fund the 'Quality of Life' unit of the Gwinnett Police Department. This unit is great to have when we can afford it. It is a luxury that we can not afford at this time. I believe more emphasis should be put on catching law breakers, not trying to beautify our neighborhoods."
-- Stephanie Bivens, Loganville
Earlier this year, parents started to feel the pinch of the county's budget crisis. To compensate for lack of funds, count officials passed on the cost of utilities such as lights and water to youth athletic associations, causing sign-up fees to increase substantially.
If the latest tax proposal passes, county officials will eliminate or reduce those fees passed on the athletic associations, and instead study charges for the future.
At the same time, aquatics pools would be restored to seven day a week operations, the Dacula pool would be allowed to open in the summer, and turf management programs that have allowed athletic fields to be maintained in the past will be restored.
Projects to renovate trails, tennis courts, fences and other park amenities will be restored, and programs such as the annual Lighting of the Tree in Lawrenceville and events at the Historic Courthouse would be added back to the calendar.
With the vote, the county's sales tax-funded park expansion program would be back on track, including projects to design a renovation to Rhodes Jordan Park, design Bryson Park, and build Harbins Park, Rabbit Hill Park's soccer expansion and Lanier Park and open the Issac Adair House, Stone Mountain Tennis Center and Yellow River Post Office historic site.
Pro: "Although the cuts in the tax increase have not been felt directly yet by the children, they will in the long run as Gwinnett County falls behind in moving into the next decade with park upgrades. Our athletic fields, that house football and lacrosse, are in desperate need of being upgraded to synthetic turf in order to attract new quality move-ins into our county."
-- Erik Richards, Duluth, Gwinnett Football League
Con: "I oppose raising the millage rate in order to fully fund parks and recreations. The program cuts should remain. In this trying economic climate, many families have been forced to cut their budgets to the bare bones and have cut out all non-essential items. Parks and Recreation are non-essential. I believe that the citizens of Gwinnett would fund scholarships for needy children that wish to participate in athletic programs that cannot afford the increased fees."
-- David Hancock, Suwanee, FreedomWorks
When county commissioners voted against a tax increase this summer, funding for new fire fighters was out. But because of the special purpose local option sales tax, construction on three new stations had already begun.
The buildings have remained empty, and people who lived nearby saw home insurance rates quadruple because of the lack of fire protection.
But with the new proposal, 66 new firefighters would be added to man the stations, which include a relocation of Station 18 in the Hamilton Mill area, where a ladder truck crew will be added. The two other stations -- the county's 29th and 30th, are in the Chateau Elan area and near Loganville.
Pro: "As a citizen, I am concerned about increasing fire protection and safety while decreasing insurance premiums in all of Gwinnett. The proposed tax increase will provide the staffing of three additional fire stations. Even though they are not where I live, they will effect coverage, response time and insurance ratings throughout the county. Without these additions, another countywide emergency would greatly stress the existing Fire and Emergency Services."
-- Judy Adanich, Lilburn, Citizen Fire Academy Alumni Association Volunteer
Con: "We have been able to function fine without these new fire stations. I believe we should wait until we can afford to open them without putting an additional tax burden on the property owners of Gwinnett County. Now is the time our county government should be tightening their belt, not adding inches."
-- Charles Page, Lawrenceville, FreedomWorks Activist
Gwinnett's library system has had one of the most public struggles since officials announced budget cuts would have to be made earlier this year.
While moves to close the Dacula library then to convert to a regional library system with some branches being used as computer labs have both been scrapped, officials have already cut hours, closing branches on Sundays and Mondays.
Without the tax increase, hours would be further reduced to absorb a 10 percent cut to the county subsidy. The move would also jeopardize the system's state funding, as a state law requires counties to continue the same level of funding each year.
Officials said the tax proposal would allow officials to increase hours from the planned 35 hours a week at each branch to up to 50 hours at each branch.
Pro: "A reduction in library funding hurts people from every corner of this county. This action will weaken a vital part of the county's infrastructure that has taken so many years to build. Lack of access to books and to the technology that has become the heartbeat of daily life will severely hurt Gwinnett County's progress as a community."
-- Merwin L. Chambers, Lawrenceville, treasurer of Friends of the Gwinnett County Public Library
Con: "I fully support our library system but do believe that there are other options the commission can utilize ... to keep our libraries opened. I believe there are areas that are non essential that have not been cut and revenue raising options that have not been fully explored. We could also staff the libraries using volunteers and have 'library patron' programs to fund our library. Now is not the time to further burden the tax payers with a millage rate increase."
-- Gloria Tow, Lilburn, FreedomWorks
While all Georgia sheriffs run county jails, where inmates are taken before they go to trial, very few counties operate a prison.
Gwinnett's prison camp has been around for more than 50 years. There, people don't simply sit behind bars. The inmates clean roads and parks, help with recycling and picking up litter and perform other jobs in the community.
The prison, which is operated by a warden appointed by commissioners, also has a work release program, where judges often sentence people to live but allow them to work at their jobs and make child support or restitution payments.
Earlier this year, commissioners voted to close the prison, which is a $13 million operation that brings in about $6 million in revenues and labor services. The work release program would end this year, and the jail would close by July 2011.
But law enforcement officials and judges balked that the move would further crowd the county jail and erase a sentencing option.
With the tax increase currently being debated, officials said they would no longer work to close the prison but would continue to study options such as privatizing the facility and using inmates for more county work projects.
Pro: "The Corrections Department provided to the county 303,000 hours of inmate labor and 53,000 hours of work alternative labor for a value of $3.86 million in 2008. Those inmates removed litter from 5,600 miles of roadways, removed graffiti at 368 sites, provided janitorial and landscaping services to 39 parks and the courthouse, and collected $145,000 in child support payments and $73,000 in probation fees. I am a citizen of Gwinnett too and pay taxes. As much as I don't want to see my taxes increase, we must do whatever is necessary to protect and keep those that protect and keep us safe."
-- Butch Conway, Dacula, sheriff
Con: "I oppose raising the mileage rate to keep the prison opened. Prisons are a state function. Gwinnett should not be in the prison business. These are, for the most part, state prisoners who are serving state sentences. The entire prison -- land building and its operation -- should be sold to a private company. This would get Gwinnett out of something that was none of its business to start with."
-- Joe Newton, Norcross
While the county's district attorney, sheriff, judges, clerk of court and tax commissioner are all independently elected, they must rely on commissioners to dole out their dollars.
Each of the offices made cuts in 2009, including Tax Commissioner Katherine Sherrington's decision to impose four-day work weeks in tag offices.
But the biggest hit to the elected officials' budgets was expected to come in 2010, when finance officials said a 9 percent slash to the budget of each agency must be imposed to balance the budget.
Officials are not proposing an increase to the budgets of any of the agencies, but if the tax proposal passes, the 9 percent cut mandated for 2010 would no longer be necessary.
The proposal would also fully fund the 287(g) program for the sheriff's office, where deputies are trained to begin deportation proceedings on illegal immigrants who are among the inmate population at the county jail.
Pro: "If the county cuts my budget 9 percent, my only option will be to furlough our employees. If I have to furlough employees, I will have to delay cases, which may result in the release of violent felons. With additional revenue, I will be able to maintain current levels of service, as exemplified in recent drug arrests and recent convictions in the Superior Court."
-- Danny Porter, Duluth, district attorney
Con: "I believe the county has focused on cutting highly visible essential services to manipulate the tax payer into accepting a tax increase. I do not believe that the county has cut the budget to the bare bone. ... I call on the county commission to show leadership by not raising taxes and making more cuts to everything that is not essential."
-- Judy Bailey, Duluth, FreedomWorks
When money was tight, one of the first cuts was to suspend the mowing along county thoroughfares.
But tall grass and plants -- some as tall as person -- began to obscure sight distances on curves and turns and began to make it difficult for some people to walk along sidewalks.
Officials allowed another round of mowing recently, and the tax proposal would set aside another $350,000 to keep the roadsides manicured.
Pro: "We are naive if we underestimate the value and impact of something as simple as mowed right of ways. Data indicates that well maintained areas, both in perception and reality, reduce traffic hazards, discourage crime, and foster a sense of pride in one's community. It is one of the least expensive ways to communicate our message that Success Lives Here."
-- Chuck Warbington, Dacula, executive director of Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District
Con: "I do not support raising our taxes in order to fund mowing the right of ways. We can use inmate labor to keep our roads mowed and cleaned up. This is not a necessary expenditure."
-- Phillip Dooley, Dacula, FreedomWorks
For years, and in some cases decades, county officials have set aside funds to subsidize local nonprofits as well as agenceis such as the hospital system, Board of Health and family and children services. After taking a 10 percent cut in March, some of those subsidies were completely eliminated when the tax increase failed this summer. Others were further cut.
In the current proposed tax increase, the subsidy cuts would be return to the March level. Officials said they would discuss a plan to "phase out" subsidies but did not want to leave the groups hurting this year.
The subsidy to the Latin American Association would not be restored, but the following amounts would be given to the other groups.
Association of Retarded Citizens $123,466
Barrier Free Gwinnett $3.372
Board of Health $148,990
Children's Shelter $66,150
Council for Seniors $2,790
Gwinnett Rockdale Newton Community Service Board $76,830*
Health and Human Services Coalition $5,797*
*Denotes subsidies that were cut by 10 percent in July. The amounts listed are the 10 percent cut that would be restored. All others were completely eliminated, but would be restored if the tax increase passes
Pro: "The necessity of supporting the millage increase is simply explained in one word -- 'leverage.' Dollars that Gwinnett County puts into the nonprofits come back to Gwinnett from outside the county a hundred-fold through grants and foundation funding. The return on Gwinnett's investment cannot be lost by a no vote."
--Alice Cunningham, Hi-Hope Center
Con: "The role of our county government is to provide its citizens with essential services, such as police and fire protection. I have often said, 'Government shekels lead to shackles.' If government money is given to non-governmental organizations, government may want to have a say in the management of the organization. It is also discriminatory to award tax money to some groups and not to others. I should be able to decide which organizations receive my charitable donations, not the county government."
--Ace Alagon, Buford