McCARGO, LEVENGOOD: You can help Engage Gwinnett make right choices

Engage Gwinnett is a citizen-led volunteer committee asked to study county government and make recommendations to the Board of Commissioners about desired services, service levels and how to pay for those services in the future.

As the Engage Gwinnett Citizens Committee reaches the mid-process benchmark, we think it's important to update the community about where we are, what we have learned and what we would like our fellow taxpayers to weigh in on. The Engage Gwinnett process began with the public at a meeting in September, we are reaching out to the public again midway through the process, and we will end with the public at a community meeting in April in advance of making our final recommendations to the Board of Commissioners.

The Engage Gwinnett committee has met nine times in biweekly meetings to learn what services the county provides, at what level it provides them and what some of those services cost. The committee divided into four workgroups to study the areas of law enforcement and judiciary, development and infrastructure, community services, and fire and emergency services. The goal of these efforts has been to frame county budget issues through education, consider the alternatives to the status quo as well as the impacts and unintended consequences of those alternatives, and then to suggest choices.

To date, some of our overarching observations are that because of projected changes in Gwinnett County's demographics and growth, we are likely to see government costs rise in the future even if services are held at the same level. Some examples include senior services, transportation, health and human services, and public safety. It has become evident that we need to aggressively attract well-paying jobs to support a stronger tax base to continue our enviable quality of life.

We better understand now the proactive steps that were taken in prior years to implement operating budget reductions of approximately 9 percent across the board. We understand that the staff has recommended delaying construction of certain capital (building) SPLOST projects that once completed are expected to increase the county's operating budget. (By law, SPLOST revenue cannot fund operational costs.)

This seems prudent. However, to enable residents in the most recently developed areas of Gwinnett to receive a similar level of county services as their neighbors in other areas of the county, we will look at whether there are options for the local communities to contribute to the operations in return for completing capital projects more quickly that are fair and reasonable.

Another observation is that Gwinnett County's budget suffers from policies set by the state. An example is that Gwinnett's public health services are reimbursed under a formula that assumes Gwinnett's population has not increased since the 1970s. State-determined county court fees often do not cover county costs but cannot be raised without changes to state law. We are looking into service areas where possible efficiencies could be found and money saved through an investment in new technologies and practices, and improve greater staff coordination or changes.

At our regularly scheduled committee meeting Wednesday, we will go deeper into revenues and revenue options. The workgroups will be deliberating what service costs may be covered or offset by fees to promote good stewardship of our parks and libraries and what revenue options we have in addition to property tax. Is an additional sales tax a viable option for raising additional revenue in the future or even rolling back property tax?

As we continue to discuss potential budget recommendations, we are mindful that changes in service levels in some areas can cause costs to increase in other areas. For example, reductions in budget cuts may cause a reduction in fire and EMS response times that in turn can cause homeowner and business insurance levels to rise. Many of the challenges we face are about choices -- very difficult choices.

The Engage Gwinnett committee members strongly encourage the public to attend and participate in one of four upcoming community meetings to learn about our work and to share thoughts about what else we should recommend. Each meeting will begin with an overview of the process and then attendees will have the opportunity to meet in small groups to provide input. The four meetings will be held at various times and in different locations throughout the county to encourage participation:

* Thursday: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Duluth

* Saturday: 9 to 11 a.m. at 12Stone Church near Lawrenceville (Ga. Highway 20 campus)

* Feb. 22: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Grace Fellowship Church in Snellville

* Feb. 25: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Victory World Outreach Center in Norcross

Details on future meetings, video of past meetings and all past presentation materials can be found at www.engagegwinnett.com.

Bill McCargo, president of the Atlanta Education Fund, and Mike Levengood, a partner with the law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP, are Engage Gwinnett Citizens Committee co-chairs.