DULUTH -- With the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce leading the local movement to approve a controversial transportation tax, a group of citizen watchdogs called Thursday for the suspension of taxpayer funds to go to the organization. Changes are already in the works, leaders said.
"We want to know how the taxpayer money is spent and what the benefit is," said Sabrina Smith of Gwinnett Citizen for Responsible Government, referring to the five-year-old Partnership Gwinnett program, which the Chamber leads with $500,000 in annual donations from the county government, $150,000 each year from Gwinnett County Public Schools and funds from local cities and community improvement districts, as well as private donations.
The main complaint from the group is that a conflict of interest exists, since the Chamber of Commerce is a lobbying body.
"They are turning around, using our tax dollars to lobby against us," said James Bell of the Georgia Taxpayers Alliance, an organization that is campaigning to get people to vote no on the tax referendum Tuesday.
Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said she began discussions to improve transparency several months ago.
While Chamber officials declined to comment, saying a press release would be issued Friday, Nash said the county reached an agreement with the group to create a separate nonprofit for the Partnership Gwinnett program, so funds are no longer co-mingled with regular Chamber activities.
The two organizations have not signed an agreement for 2012, but Nash said the county has budgeted $500,000 for the program this year and plans to continue its involvement with the partnership, which Chamber leaders claim has brought 280 businesses to Gwinnett, created 12,000 jobs and generated $800 million in economic activity. The program is credited with drawing major companies including NCR to the county.
"I think that's one of the things that has distinguished Gwinnett's economic development efforts of the past few years," Nash said of the cooperation displayed by leaders of every sector working together on goals. "In the tough economic competition we've had, anything that you can do to distinguish your community is good."
Due to funding restrictions, the public school system does not make a direct contribution to the program, but it does fund two employee positions who work on economic development, totalling $150,000 each year.
"Our focus has been and remains on educating children. It does take money to do that," GCPS spokeswoman Sloan Roach said. "These positions work to increase the property tax base (our only source of local revenue), thus increasing the funds we have to put toward teaching and learning. We feel this has been a good investment that has reaped benefits for our county and our students; otherwise, we wouldn't be involved."