Judge rules in Gwinnett service dispute



LAWRENCEVILLE — A judge has ruled in the three-year-old service delivery case that has caused a rift between Gwinnett and its cities.

Officials said they are reviewing the document, which appears to force the county to set up special tax districts for services such as police, fire and transit.

It appears, if the ruling stands, that people who live in cities will have a lower tax rate for some services than people in the county, which was a major contention of city officials who funded their own police department and believed they were being double taxed in paying for the county service.

“The cities are now reviewing the order and its impact on the taxpayers of the municipal and unincorporated areas of the county,” said Auburn Mayor Linda Blechinger, who leads the Gwinnett Municipal Association, a coalition of 14 cities. “We intend to provide additional comments after that review. Some aspects of the order appear to have been dealt with through direct negotiations with the county officials that resumed in June 2011. Other provisions, including the order’s implementation schedule, will need further analysis.

“The cities intend to continue meeting with county officials to resolve the previously identified issues and explore options to conclude this matter as soon as possible. Our objective is to finally resolve the disputed SDS tax equity issues in a manner that complies with the law, the orders and resolves the issues for all Gwinnett County taxpayers.”

Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash also said officials are studying the ruling, issued by Chief Judge David Barrett of the Enotah Judicial Circuit

“This is a complex case and the order is lengthy,” Nash said. “We’ll carefully review the judge’s ruling to fully gauge its impact on all the taxpayers in Gwinnett County.”

Three years ago, leaders failed to reach an agreement on how to divide government services and pay for them across jurisdictions, a requirement of state law known as the service delivery strategy. Negotiations have continued through the years, and last year the sides went before a judge to make their cases.

While Gwinnett has reached a tentative settlement agreement with Lilburn, pledging $372,136, the dispute with the remaining 14 cities has caused all of the jurisdictions to lose their qualified local government status. That meant local police agencies lost the right to use radar guns to enforce speeding earlier this year, and state grants and permits were put on hold.

According to the ruling, the county has until Nov. 1 to form service districts and establish new accounting procedures. The county’s 2012 budget shall be formulated to comply with the terms, it said.