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Committee debates use of subsidies

DULUTH -- Gwinnett's method of subsidizing health and human resources organizations is "broken," members of the Engage Gwinnett committee said Wednesday.

But many said the government's grants to needy organizations should continue.

The debate ensued Wednesday, as work groups began to define recommendations on county services and funding for the study designed to create resident input on the county's budget crisis.

Last year, commissioners stripped decades-old subsidies to organizations like the Hi-Hope Center and the Gwinnett Children's Shelter. But the subsidies were restored, at least temporarily when officials considered a tax increase.

Money is also given out each year to Gwinnett Medical Center, public and mental health agencies and the Division of Family and Children Services.

Committee member Carol Hassell, a former Suwanee councilwoman, said it is "ridiculous" that the nonprofit grants are given to the same agencies each year simply because they had been given the money for years.

She suggested the money be doled out by the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services, another nonprofit supported by the county which acts as an umbrella group for local nonprofits and service providers.

The coalition has developed a strategic plan to address issues such as poverty, teenage drug use and homelessness, and members said the group could come up with a results and needs-based method to decide who receives county funding.

"We do have some responsibility to take care of our own, in my estimation," Hassell said. "The county just needs to get out of the way."

The group did not vote on the recommendation, and member Bob Griggs said he objected to the use of taxpayer funds for human relations needs.

But Norwood Davis, another member of the community services work group and minister at 12Stone Church who has worked with a group of churches to give out millions in grant money to community groups, said the issue was a matter of quality of life.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of (cure)," he said. "It's much more expensive to put someone through the court system and drug rehab than for a program to keep them from touching drugs in the first place."

Other preliminary recommendations discussed by work groups Wednesday include:

* Re-evaluating the regional library approach, which was scrapped by the library board last year because of objections from patrons.

* Parking fee donation boxes at county parks and evaluate privatization of facilities such as the historic courthouse

* Advocating legislative action to increase state-mandated court fees.

* Explore outsourcing of the county prison, courthouse security, animal control and process servers.

* Create a pro-business environment with development regulations.

Organizers also posed a new task to the fire and emergency services work group, which was farther ahead in its evaluation than other groups.

The subcommittee was asked to evaluate back-office county departments such as human resources, information technology and finance, which were cut by as much as 25 percent due to the recent budget constraints.

Bill McCargo, one of the study's co-chairs, said that area was missed in the original division of work.

Officials plan to continue debating recommendation later this month and next month. A public hearing is being planned for late February for residents to respond to the ideas.