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Budget cuts can't stop tree

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

LAWRENCEVILLE -- For two decades, Mavis Burson has decorated a Christmas tree on the lawn of the Gwinnett Historic Courthouse.

And despite a budget debate for county commissioners, Burson said she plans to decorate it for years to come.

"When all the children come with their bright eyes glowing, I just think: 'We can't not have it,'" Burson said.

The 22nd annual Lighting of the Tree event, scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. today, could have been the last, as county commissioners cut funding for it in the 2010 budget earlier this year.

While a tax proposal scheduled for Tuesday could restore the funding, Lawrenceville officials said they would do all they can to host the event themselves if the county pulls out.

"It's something that means too much for the city to let go," Mayor Rex Millsaps said of the day when Santa arrives and families come out to sing Christmas carols and sip hot cocoa.

The city contributes about $16,000, mostly for the tree. The county adds $35,000 to that, including staffing and contracts for other events at the county courthouse leading up to the new year.

Millsaps said he hopes to use volunteers if county staff are no longer used for the event.

Because the city recently increased its hotel-motel tax rate, Millsaps said he hopes there will be enough extra revenue for expenses such as hiring a band.

Local merchants have already stepped up to offer sponsorships to keep the custom alive.

"It won't be the last one. With or without the county, we'll still participate," he said, adding that the city continued its Prelude to the Fourth event despite the county's cancellation of Gwinnett Glows this year.

Every Thanksgiving, the tree lighting has become a tradition in the county seat to officially open the holiday season.

"It's something we all look forward to," said Burson, whose service as a "one-woman decorating committee" was noted by a proclamation from the city on Oct. 1, her 80th birthday. "I missed the fireworks, but I can understand why that is a very expensive thing in the times we have. ... The tree lighting we cannot miss. That's very important."

This year's event will include free entertainment by The Class Act Band and a few other events for nominal fees, including face painting at $5, and food concessions.

At a cost of $10, kids 15 and under can ride with Santa on the holiday trolley, as it makes its entrance at the tree-lighting ceremony.

The tree lighting ceremony will begin at 6 p.m., with Santa expected to ride at 6:45 p.m.

The Santa Trolley also rolls into the square Dec. 4 and 5 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. That weekend, tickets are $2 per person.

And the Jolly Old Elf will return to the courthouse for visits and pictures ($5) from 4:30 to 8 p.m. on Dec. 12, 13, 18, 19 and 20. On Dec. 21 and 22, hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. During those dates, kids crafts will be open at Santa's Elf Workshop for $1 per child, and visitors can take a free tour of the courthouse.

These events are among the ones that could be in their last year if commissioners do not pass a proposed tax increase next week.

Two other special dates at the courthouse include festive free entertainment at the gazebo Dec. 13, and carriage rides available for $5 a person Dec. 19.