Staff Photo: John Bohn A private ambulance and a Gwinnett County Fire Department ambulance are parked at the emergency department entrance of Gwinnett Medical Center.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Three years of fights, depositions, negotiations and legal manuevering came to an end last week, when elected officials across Gwinnett signed off on an agreement about how services will be divided and paid for.
The settlement -- which a judge quickly accepted -- creates four service delivery districts in the county, centered around police, fire and emergency services and development. The distrits give residents in cities a break on county taxes for services the city provides.
The county also agreed to pay its 15 cities more than $30 million.
Here is a look at how the agreement will impact services, taxes and finances and some information on how the decision was reached.
How will the service delivery agreement affect my property tax bill?
The fall-out won't be clear until tax rates for the new districts are set in the summer of 2013.
"We're going to go through the process the same way we do every year," Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said. "I can't sit here and tell you what's going to happen with every single millage rate, but it's safe to say some parts of Gwinnett will see a reduction."
All local city residents will not have to pay a development and enforcement rate. Those with police forces will not pay the Gwinnett police service rate, and residents in Loganville will not have to pay for county fire services.
It is unclear if taxes for people in unincorporated Gwinnett will go up as a result.
How do the pay-outs to cities affect county finances?
The $10 million in one-time payments is coming from money left over from the 2011 budget, Nash said. The police payments are coming from insurance premium funds that previously would not have been allowed to apply to that service district.
It's a lot of money, Nash notes, but a small sacrifice to pay compared to the uncertainty that the issue has brought to county finances for the past several years.
"I have a lot less concern about the impact of this settlement than the uncertainty of the tax digest has on the next few years," Nash said of the dip in property values that continues to affect the budget.
How will police service change based on the settlement?
It will not change at all for people who live in unincorporated Gwinnett and the cities of Berkeley Lake, Buford, Dacula, Grayson, Rest Haven and Sugar Hill, which agreed to be a part of the county's police service district.
But the cities with police departments -- Auburn, Braselton, Duluth, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Loganville, Norcross, Snellville and Suwanee -- agreed to forego some of the usual help the county force often provides, such as assistance with murder investigations and a SWAT team on stand-by.
"There may be some mutual aid or extraordinary circumstance that would occur, but we're going to comply with the order," Nash said of restricting the service.
Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris said her city would be willing to pay extra when those specialties are needed but she sees no need to pay each year when those are extraordinary circumstances.
Some services remain countywide: animal control, chemical and biological hazard disposal, corrections, emergency management, indigent defense and medical care, medical examiner and the radio dispatch system.
When will radar return to Gwinnett?
Officials don't know yet.
While the judge signed off the service-delivery settlement the day after Gwinnett's commissioners and mayors did, paperwork has to be filed with the Department of Community Affairs to return the qualified local government status to the various municipalities. Then, the police forces must apply for permits from another state agency and possibly go through a process before the use of radar is approved.
What about motor vehicle taxes?
While property tax bills will reflect the changes in 2013, motor vehicle taxes are always based on the previous year's millage rate, since people begin paying in January, long before that year's rates are set.So those bills will not change until 2014.
However, county officials worried about the transition made a point of including some money transfers to the police, fire and development funds to make up for the fact that no motor vehicle taxes will be applied to them in 2013.
What is the upside to dividing the services into districts?
For city residents, that is clear: they won't have to pay for county services that they do not use.
For county residents, though, there is also an upside.
Nash said the accounting may be a little trickier for county officials but it also makes the tax bill a little easier for residents to understand. They will know how much is billed for police and fire -- two of the biggest expenses of government -- although sheriffs and courts expenses, which make up an even bigger share, will still be a part of the general fund billing.
"It makes it easier for folks to see where their money is being spent," Nash said.
How much money will my city receive in the settlement?
The final numbers have have only been determined for Lilburn, where officials negotiated outside of the Gwinnett Municipal Association block, reaching a settlement more than a year before the others.
In total, the county is expected to pay about $31 million to all 15 municipalities. The numbers for each will be determined by April 1, according to paperwork.
The payouts include one-time payments of $2.2 million for the planning district (including $128,765 for Lilburn), $5.5 million for the police cities ($413,404 for Lilburn), and nearly $1 million in other payments ($67,771 for Lilburn).
Beginning this year and lasting for six more years, the county agreed to pay $1.6 million ($120,636 for Lilburn) to cities will police departments, plus another $1.5 million for those cities from 911 funds,
Were there any perks the county got for giving the cities pay-outs?
Yes, Nash said, mostly some major accounting benefits that were overlooked in an order from Judge David Barrett last year, which the county had appealed.
"It wasn't just a give-away by the county," she said. "It was a negotiated. There were gives and takes on both sides."
While Barrett ruled the county should set up service districts, his ruling would have made the districts effective on Jan. 1, 2012, just a few months after the ruling. There were no stipulations made for the delay in motor vehicle tax revenue or even the ability to transfer money from the general fund -- which has traditionally funded fire and police services -- to set up a reserve fund for those operations.
"It's better than what the situation was going to be with the judge's order. We've got a year to work through the impacts," Nash said.
Many of the one-time payments were calcuated based on what city residents will pay the county in 2012, since the implementation was delayed for a year.
-- Another big concession from the cities was in the use of insurance premium taxes and non-enumerated revenue. While those taxes are only collected from people who live in unincorporated Gwinnett and city residents pay those taxes to the cities, the judge had ruled that the taxes could only be applied countywide, not reserved for unincorporated services.
But city officials agreed that the county could use the money for a service that only applies in unincorporated areas -- for police. The county expects a total of $53 million annually to be set aside for that fund, and in exchange, the cash pay-out for the next seven years will also come from that money.
-- Finally, city officials agreed to one provision that wasn't even really part of the issue at hand.
If a city annexes a hotel from the unincorporated area, it would usually then begin collecting the hotel-motel taxes. But city officials agreed to give back to the county the proceeds that have been obligated to pay off Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau debts to build the baseball stadium, the arena and a parking deck at the Gwinnett Center.
How will the fire department be impacted by the new service districts?
The only place where service will change is in the city of Loganville.
Loganville has its own fire department but it does not have emergency medical services, so residents there will only pay the county for EMS.
Because Loganville residents had been paying for fire service for the past several years, the county agreed to place $820,000 in the Loganville EMS fund, and the city residents won't be charged until that money runs out. With only about $12,000 to $14,000 in expenses expected each year, that could last a while.
What about 911 services?
Charges for 911 service are on the phone bill of every Gwinnett resident, and they all are paid to the county, regardless of if a person lives in a city.
During the dispute, Nash said, some cities considered breaking off from the county's 911 service to start their own, since the police cities have their own dispatchers to relay calls to police officers but no dedicated revenues to pay for them.
To stave off that split and keep the county system whole -- mostly because fire and emergency calls all need to be dispatched to the county and could be delayed if they go to a city first -- county officials agreed to give a portion of their 911 funds to the cities to pay the salaries of their dispatchers. The amount, at least $1.5 million a year, will be determined by a new advisory group.
The county also agreed to buy the city dispatchers some new equipment for automatic number identification and automatic location identification.
What if my city wants to start its own police force?
There are stipulations in the agreement to allow a city to opt in or out of the police service district.
For the city of Sugar Hill, which has explored adding a force in recent years, Mayor Gary Pirkle negotiated specific terms to allow the city to try its own hand at policing.
"We're the largest city without a department, and we wanted to keep that option open," he said. "But we don't have anything planned right now."
How were transportation services handled in the settlement?
The governments agreed on a map of roads that the county maintains inside cities -- mostly major arterial roads that link communities. Some other roads were added, in part, Nash said, to offer something that the smaller cities could agree to.
Unlike the judge's order from last year, the county and cities agreed against creating a special service district for transit, Instead, the service will remain a countywide system with tax revenue paid into the county's general fund.
What is the development and enforcement district?
This district includes only the unincorporated portions of Gwinnett and will fund planning, development, plan review, building permits, building inspections, zoning and code enforcement. Various fees will also go to pay for these services.
Since each city has its own planning and zoning functions, the residents there will no longer pay for the county's functions.
The county will continue to be the sole provider of long-term planning functions required by the Atlanta Regional Commission, so those functions will be funded by the general fund.
What happens when Peachtree Corners becomes a city in July?
The creation of a new city is a trigger for the county's service delivery strategy talks to begin anew. However, the agreements signed last week were for seven years for most services and 25 years for the fire service.
The county must reach an agreement with Peachtree Corners' new city council, but since most of the services have been agreed to as part of the charter created in the Legislature, Nash said she isn't expecting any issues.
The city is expected to be a part of the Gwinnett fire and EMS and police districts. It will likely opt out of the develoment and enforcement district.