Residents, city officials clash over SDS refund money

Just because the Service Delivery Settlement was wrapped up in court this spring doesn't mean Gwinnett County residents are happy, especially in Suwanee.

When monetary settlement figures were released, some residents openly wondered if they would receive a check to refund what they perceived as a "double taxation." Frustration among Suwanee residents, though, has only risen by the explanation -- or lack therof in residents' minds -- of how and why city officials have chosen to put the money in an account for capital projects.

It's unethical, they bark. Morally wrong, some have said.

Suwanee officials elected to put the lump sum payment of about $2.2 million into its general fund, and they said this year's payment of $642,429 gives an opportunity to tax less. That's why the proposed 2013 budget, which could be adopted at Tuesday's City Council meeting, has a millage decrease from 2012 of .72, from 5.65 to 4.93.

Much of it boils down to when and how the money would be spent. These vocal residents have said the money is rightfully theirs, and they should be able to choose how the money is spent.

But cities don't have a legal mechanism in this situation to cut checks to citizens.

One technicality is Gwinnett County tapped its general fund to pay the settlements, so there's no way to prove where it actually came from to begin with.

The argument city officials use is putting the money in an account to pay for something like a park would add value to the city and help maintain property values. Like Suwanee, Lilburn city officials have also professed to use the settlements for long-term capital projects, while other Gwinnett cities plan to put them in general funds, pay legal fees or make up for cuts made in previous years.

This has been a common problem around the metro area for several years in places like north Fulton County, where residents often complain about service inequities.

One reason Suwanee city manager Marty Allen said the city wouldn't refund the two bonds it has is because it either can't, or is very limited. The city refunded its 2001 open space bonds in 2006, as was allowed in the first 10 years of the 30-year bond. But that can't be done again, Allen said.

The city also can't refund its Urban Redevelopment Agency bonds, which are set at 20 years, until 2016.

"So in 2016, we'll look at it," Allen said. "It's not as easy as what people think."

While initially, it was thought this disagreement was born out of debt philosophy differences between generations, it seems it's ultimately a difference between the complexity of city budgets and finances versus regular Joe kitchen table checkbooks.

Keith Farner covers Suwanee for the Daily Post. Reach him at keith.farner@gwinnettdailypost.com.