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County's operating budget breaks $1B mark

LAWRENCEVILLE — Gwinnett’s operating budget eclipsed $1 billion for the first time, even as property tax values dip.

Commissioners approved a mid-year reconciliation to its 2010 budget Tuesday, granting a 4.9 percent decrease to the general fund, while a new line item for the recently implemented solid waste program increased the overall operating spending plan to $1.01 billion.

The property tax decrease, which has occurred over the past couple of years as the economy has suffered, will mean problems funding government in 2011, but commissioners voted Tuesday to use money from a March property tax billing to stave off cuts this year.

The money, from a millage rate increased imposed late last year after property tax bills had gone out, includes $18 million to reduce this year’s deficit, as well as $10 million to pay outstanding debt and $5 million for the Gwinnett Hospital Authority to complete a commitment to give $5 million for five years. Another $21.2 million will be applied to the county’s accrued liabilities, which include retiree health care and pensions.

“We are tight. We’ll get through this year without additional cuts,” Chairman Charles Bannister said. “We’re going to use that money to keep the lights on.”

Officials have already begun to prepare next year’s budget.

“We need to find ways to enhance revenues from outside, other than property taxes, and continue holding costs down,” Bannister said. “It’s the only way we can make it.”

Bannister said the recommendations of the Engage Gwinnett committee, which studied county finances earlier this year, will be considered in balancing the spending plan. The citizen-led effort had asked that the special tax billing money be used to stop further cuts.

“Using a portion of the one-time tax revenue to balance the 2010 budget frees county leaders to focus on future budget challenges,” said Engage Gwinnett Co-Chairman Mike Levengood. “There are certain to be some tough choices ahead, but many of the Engage Gwinnett recommendations will serve as a road map to meet those challenges.”

The reconciliation budget approved Tuesday also includes a $49.4 million reduction to a capital spending plan because sales tax revenues have fallen below projections.