Deadline for dispute may cost county

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett County and its cities are likely to lose their status as qualified local governments Monday, placing them in danger of losing state grants and permits.

Officials have not reached a resolution in the nearly yearlong service delivery dispute that landed mayors and commissioners in court. And a judge ruled that the governments would face sanctions if no compromise was reached by Monday.

"In my opinion, there won't be a settlement before Feb. 1," said Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, who is leading the city side of the discussion as chairman of the Gwinnett Municipal Association. "We'd have to be much further down the road than we are now. ... Monday is the deadline, and we're not there."

According to a letter from the Department of Community Affairs, the governments will have a short grace period until Feb. 28, when the state officials will review local statuses, based on annual planning dates.

Last week, the judge set a deadline for depositions and discovery and scheduled a March 19 hearing to decide the case.

After the Supreme Court declined to reconsider a judge's ruling that the county cannot roll back millage rates for unincorporated residents for many fees paid only by those residents, such as alcohol taxes and franchise fees, city leaders submitted a proposal to commissioners.

Johnson said commissioners promised a written counter-proposal, but that has not yet been received. Commissioners are scheduled to meet in executive session Tuesday, where the case may be discussed behind closed doors.

"I do believe progress is being made, and I do believe a resolution is forthcoming," said Chairman Charles Bannister, who declined to discuss the legal matter further.

While the governments lost their qualified local government status briefly last year because of the court matter, officials said they do not know the impact of the state-imposed sanctions, which could halt any aid from the state.

Johnson said it could delay city streetscape projects in Norcross, and Lawrenceville Mayor Rex Millsaps said he hopes the sanctions do not halt city water improvements that were recently approved.

"With sanctions, none of us really know what it'll entail until they impose them," Millsaps said. "They could be painful."