Committee talks potential closing of libraries, parks

DULUTH -- If Gwinnett's tax digest takes another dive, a resident study committee should be prepared to cut another 10 percent from the county government, leaders said.

But members of the group's community services work group took that task a step farther Wednesday, looking to cut much more from so-called "luxury" services of libraries and parks to save money for police and firefighters.

The debate got heated Wednesday, as the committee neared the end of its six-month-long study of the government in light of the crumbling economy.

"It's clear the average citizen ... would anticipate reductions in service would apply disproportionately," said Dan King, as his group focused on finding deeper cuts to spare public safety. "Public safety, in some people's minds, is sacrosanct."

While a work group focusing on the fire department weighed salary reductions and eliminating apparatus at some stations to avoid rolling brown-outs, the community services group decided to find ways to trim 20 percent of the parks budget and 30 percent from the library.

Despite an outcry last year over a proposal to close the Dacula branch, the group said the "worse case scenario" of another 10 percent drop in the property tax digest could require the closing of one branch in each of the county's four commission districts.

The same equitable distribution of following commission district lines could be used to close parks, too, they said.

"That's just a way to share the pain," said member Carol Hassell. "Now the hard reality is we aren't going to have that level of service anywhere."

In at least two work groups, members said they wanted officials to help fund the gap with a $51 million one-time payment due soon from property owners, after commissioners approved a tax increase late last year after temporary bills had already been issued.

County officials have said they would recommend that money be used to fund unfunded liabilities, such as a government pension plan.

But Keith Shewbert, a committee member who is running for the District 2 commission seat, said the money could fund county operations for a year and a half even if the property digest levels drop.

"It might get us through the biggest part of this period," he said. "Now's the time to take that money we have in the bank ... and set it aside to keep from having to raise taxes."