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County lowers millage rate

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

LAWRENCEVILLE — Tax bills will go down about $20 for an average homeowner, after commissioners voted to discontinue a tax levy for a debt that had been paid off.

The decision Monday reversed a vote in February, where officials had agreed to transfer the 0.23 mill levy to the government’s general operations, boosting the fund by nearly $5 million.

“It felt like a switcheroo,” Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said of the reaction from taxpayers to the earlier decision. “I don’t think it’ll be easy … but we’ll continue to look outside of the box for solutions. … I think it’s the right thing to do now.”

While the vote was unanimous, Commissioner Lynette Howard expressed concern that the government would face another budget crisis next year, as the economy continues to drive home values down.

“There are consequences down the road,” she said. “It’s exciting to not have taxes raised, but you have to look three to five years down the road and, like other counties, be forced to raise taxes.”

Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, who criticized the February decision while she was running for office, convinced others to change the policy, saying the tax levy should be set to match the 2011 budget, not the needs in the future.

“We are in an enviable position,” she said of the budget changes that made the tax cut possible. “I do not downplay the difficulty and sacrifices that have gone into being able to make this decision.”

Margie Clay of Dacula attended Monday’s special meeting because she was worried the decision-makers would raise taxes in a time when taxpayers can’t afford it.

“It’s just not right to punish (homeowners),” she said. “I just don’t agree with what they spend on parks and libraries. … A lot of our money is getting wasted.”

With tax bills set to go out in the mail next month, Gwinnett’s operations millage rate will remain at 11.78 mills, according to the vote. The debt service rate will reduce from 0.47 mills in 2010 to 0.24 mills, keeping in place a 2003 obligation from a voter-supported levy to fund an expansion to the county jail.

Earlier this year, the county paid off a 1986 bond debt that funded libraries and road projects. Officials discussed continuing the 0.47 mill debt levy to pay off the jail bonds early. The extra payments could have meant the bonds would be paid off in 2013 or 2014 instead of 2020 or 2021.

But instead, commissioners voted to cut the rate that had been charged for the bonds that had been paid off.

“I believe a promise was made 25 years ago (when the debt was levied),” Commissioner Shirley Lasseter said. “We made a promise, and I want everyone in the county to know we kept it at a very, very, very hard time.”

Lasseter also stressed the possibility of more cuts to services in the coming years, but added, “I do not believe that right now is the time to raise any taxes in Gwinnett County because people are hurting.”