Officials: Tax hike required

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Four months after a proposed 2.87- to 3.31-mill increase was voted down, officials have proposed a 2.28-mill increase to county property taxes.

The increase, which would come in a second set of property tax bills after a judge sent a temporary millage rate earlier this year, would restore previous cuts to the police department, open three fire stations left vacant, keep the county prison open and stave off a potential shutdown of the county judicial system.

"I think I let the citizens down this past June," when the tax increase was defeated, Commissioner Kevin Kenerly said. "A vote for this is a vote to protect the citizens. ... You're supposed to lead and do the best for the citizens, not just listen to who is shouting the loudest."

Residents can address commissioners about the proposal during public hearings scheduled for 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Nov. 23 and 7 p.m. Dec. 1. The commission is expected to formally consider the rate at the Dec. 1 called meeting.

Chairman Charles Bannister said the hearings could be crowded with naysayers, as were hearings held earlier this year.

But he said many people now understand the government's plight, after a retirement incentive caused 202 people to leave the county, library hours were cut, youth association fees skyrocketed, subsidies were slashed and insurance rates rose in communities where the fire stations were left vacant.

Faced with another 9 percent cut across county departments, the district attorney and judges said Gwinnett's judicial system would be shut down without more funding.

"The attitudes have probably mellowed considerably," he said. "The people are beginning to understand that cuts are deeper than they thought."

This proposal also includes one rate for taxpayers, after the June proposal included separate rates for people who live in cities and those who live in unincorporated Gwinnett. Officials said the idea hasn't been shelved, as Gwinnett and its municipalities remain locked in a lawsuit over services. But they are calling for a single rate in 2009.

After $120 million in cuts during the past year, Gwinnett's 2009 budget would be balanced with no tax increase, but officials decided to set the tax levy to address a $9.7 million deficit in 2010 while also restoring public safety funding to 2008 levels, with the exception of some revenue enhancements.

Officials are still considering fees for non-county residents who use the local parks, but the proposal would fund grounds maintenance, some lighting fees that had been passed on to youth associations, pool operations and money to maintain parks.

Mowing along roads would also resume, and the annual Christmas tree lighting would be scheduled again, if the increase passes. And officials said library hours -- which were reduced to 35 hours a week at a meeting earlier this week -- could be increased to 40 or 41 hours.

With the county's temporary bills due Nov. 15, officials expect to send a second set of bills in March with a due date in April. With a bill of less that $160.33 for a house valued at less than $200,000, the revenues would bring in another $59 million for the county.

In all, the increase represents about $13.36 a month for a home valued at under $200,000. Finance Director Aaron Bovos said the increase would be less than $25 a month for 93 percent of county homeowners.

"I'm asking everyone ... to sacrifice for the county on (a) movie ticket and one Diet Coke (a month) to protect every citizen of the county," said Kenerly, who sought the new proposal. "To me, I think that's a minimum price to ask to get us to where we need to be. ... People have to get their head out of the sand and not just think about themselves all the time."

More information about the tax proposal can be found at www.gwinnettcounty.com.