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MURPHY: Engage Gwinnett gave county a powerful tool

County government has struggled mightily the last year and a half trying to maintain essential services. In the end, the commissioners did the two things politicians hate to do -- cut services and hike taxes. A result of those actions is the extra property tax payment due Monday.

But just because the issue of last year's taxes is settled doesn't mean the work is over. The county will be right back at it sooner than you think. Further cuts look unavoidable and more tax hikes are very possible. So what will commissioners do?

Enter Engage Gwinnett.

In October, Engage Gwinnett, a panel of 40 volunteers, hunkered down and immersed into the world of Gwinnett County finances. After education, research, discussion and debate, the group came up with 113 ways to help commissioners navigate these turbulent seas. Seventy-three recommendations apply if the economic environment remains; 40 recommendations could be put in place if things get worse.

Chairman Charles Bannister and district commissioners Kevin Kenerly, Bert Nasuti, Shirley Lasseter and Mike Beaudreau will set the millage rate for 2010 taxes later this year. Kenerly and Nasuti will leave office at the end of this year, so two new commissioners will join the group in balancing the next budget.

The commission is not obliged to take Engage Gwinnett recommendations, but members would do well to give them due consideration.

The nearly 100-page Engage Gwinnett report was submitted to commissioners April 27. The report is too involved to do its contents justice in this 600-word column. But here's a taste of the suggestions:

"Status quo"

recommendation

* Hike some user fees to recover more of the operating costs at recreational facilities.

* Privatize sell or outsource operations of select active recreation facilities -- e.g. county pools -- or increase user fees so they are self-supporting.

* Increase fees for things such as court filings to come closer to recover the cost of the service.

* Use more technology to decrease costs in the Law Enforcement and Justice System., i.e. a paperless system for courts, tickets, etc.

"Declining Digest"

recommendations:

(If the tax digest value drops 10 percent below current level)

* Continue employee salary freezes; continue shifting the cost of benefits to employees.

* Raise funds by selling "sponsorships" of parks, trails, etc. at county facilities.

* Close some parks.

* Aggressively raise fees for services.

* Seek a 2010 referendum for a local option sales tax to roll back property taxes on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

* "As a last resort," increase the property tax beyond the current 13.25 mills.

* And this one, definitely caught our eye -- Initiate a campaign to enlist volunteers to supply a million volunteer hours each year.

To fully grasp these suggestions and their implications, they need to be presented within the context of the full Engage Gwinnett report. The Daily Post will publish more on the group's findings over the coming weeks and interested residents -- that includes all of us who barked loudly at the tax hike -- should take the time to read it. It is available at the Engage Gwinnett Web site at www.engagegwinnett.com.

To be fair, the report gives 18 pages to dissenting committee members, those who disagree with the committee's eventual report. The recommendations, background and dissenting opinions combine to make this a must read for those wanting to engage in the budget debate.

While we wait for the commissioners to take up these recommendations, we ought to thank Engage Gwinnett participants: two chairmen, 40 members, 40 alternates who gave up a collective 2,058 hours in 13 work session and six public outreach meetings from October to March.

The report doesn't solve the economic woes, but it gives the commissioners another perspective, a valuable tool as they continue wrestling Gwinnett's finances.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.