Director: Tax increase about level of service, not money

DULUTH - Gwinnett's budget crisis isn't about the money, county Chief Financial Officer Aaron Bovos said Thursday. It's about service levels.

Bovos will soon present a proposal for increasing the county's property tax, after Commissioner Kevin Kenerly reignited the controversial issue earlier this month.

The tax revenues could help open three fire stations left vacant because of a lack of funding, but Bovos told members of the Engage Gwinnett committee that the work in setting government service levels is important even if the taxes are available.

"We don't have a budget challenge. We have a level of service challenge, and level of service directly applies to costs," Bovos said, adding that county officials contemplated the possibility of a millage rate hike for 2009 as far back as 2004.

With capital projects such as fire stations, libraries and parks in the works, officials knew the operating money would be needed to staff the new facilities, but Bovos said a vote by commissioners this summer rejecting a millage rate increase "dramatically changed our expectation."

The numbers can be worked out, he said, but commissioners - and the committee charged with recommending a solution - have to decide on services and how they will be funded.

"Your mission is not impacted" by the millage rate discussion, Bovos said, adding that officials have put off all other capital projects that would require an increase in service until 2014 because of the economy, and a $9.7 million budget gap exists for 2010 even if service levels remain the same.

On top of that, officials project a $7 million to $9 million revenue dip every year for the next five years.

Bill Atkinson, a committee member who served as county chairman in the 1970s, asked how the decision to build Gwinnett Stadium impacted the county's operating fund needs.

But Bovos said the $19 million taken from the county's rainy day fund had little impact on the situation.

"From an operating perspective, we wouldn't have used that $19 million for services because we couldn't sustain it," he said.

In the past, the county's value offset exemption, which was approved by the Legislature giving homeowners a greater exemption on county property taxes when their home values rise, had been reviled by finance officials, as it does not allow the county to fund inflation.

But the exemption helped this year, Bovos said, because it meant many of the properties that had deflated values did not give the county a large net loss in revenues.