Sugar Hill expects to hold millage rate steady

SUGAR HILL -- At the Sugar Hill City Council's monthly meeting Monday night, Councilman Marc Cohen encouraged residents to appreciate all the city is doing to improve itself -- remarkably with no increase in property taxes, despite a shrinking tax digest.

"When you look around and see all the development and all we're doing, know that we're doing that without raising taxes," Cohen said in the second of three public hearings on the city's millage rate. "There's a lot going on in Sugar Hill, and we're trying to do it without raising taxes, while maintaining a quality of life."

Despite an anticipated 8 percent drop in its $616 million tax digest, largely because of eroding residential property values everywhere, Gwinnett's fourth-largest city of roughly 17,000 residents announced it's holding its millage rate at 3.8 mills, the rate it decreased to from 3.88 in 2002.

Sugar Hill's roughly 60 employees face the challenge of maintaining residents' quality of life with roughly $200,000 less in tax revenue.

"We've always run a very lean, mean machine," Councilman Steve Edwards said. "We've always been very conservative with taxpayers' money. We've always done a good job managing taxpayers' money."

Undoubtedly, Sugar Hill is feeling the economic pinch like everyone else. Its residential tax base is shrinking, chiefly because of reduced home values, but in part because previously taxable land has been converted to tax-exempt schools, parks and churches.

Sugar Hill just opened the 50-acre first phase of Gary Pirkle Park and is amid its 18-acre expansion of E.E. Robinson Park. It hopes soon to break ground on a $1.2 million retention/detention pond downtown, the first step toward to next year's planned $14 million downtown streetscape, including a $8.5 million city hall.

With its final public hearing on its tax rate scheduled for Monday night, Sugar Hill joins Lawrenceville and Suwanee among Gwinnett's cities reportedly planning to keep their rates steady. Meanwhile, Berkeley Lake reportedly is contemplating a 33 percent increase, Snellville a 42 percent hike, and Duluth an increase as well.

Sugar Hill City Manager Bob Hail insisted the city has no plans to cut services, but Mayor Gary Pirkle hinted that belt-tightening will be needed as Sugar Hill weathers the economic storm.

"We'll have to juggle a few other projects, but it's good we'll do that without raising the tax rate," Pirkle said.