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PROGRESS: New districts expected to cause an increase in taxes

LAWRENCEVILLE -- For some Gwinnettians, property tax bills will bring good news this fall. But for the majority of county residents, a tax increase appears to be imminent.

The increase is expected as part of a new service agreement with cities that ended a lawsuit last year and created an entirely new way to fund government.

On this year's tax bill, residents will find the county portion divided into districts, with all locals paying a general levy. But residents who live in cities will not pay for services their municipal government also offers. In all cities, they will not pay development and enforcement taxes. In the city of Loganville, fire taxes won't apply, and in nine of Gwinnett's 16 cities, police services will no longer be a part of the county tax bill.

In those nine cities, where 20 percent of the population lives -- in incorporated Auburn, Braselton, Duluth, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Loganville, Norcross, Snellville and Suwanee -- the overall county tax portion of tax bills will be reduced.

But when millage rates are set this summer, leaders said the overall rate will likely be raised for everyone else, so that police services do not have to be cut. The creation of the city of Peachtree Corners and the economy also factored into the rates, Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said.

"We have worked very hard to mitigate the effect of all these factors so that the millage rates will be as low as possible while maintaining core services," Nash said. "Any millage rate increases will be modest and will be limited to those necessary for public safety services."

District 1 Commissioner Jace Brooks, who was a Suwanee city councilman when the settlement was reached, said he believes the new method is more fair, although it could limit some flexibility for the government.

But District 3's Tommy Hunter said that could provide for more government accountability.

"I personally like having the service districts. It prohibits 'co-mingling' of funds, to a degree, and allows citizens to get a little better idea of where their money is spent," he said. "It is too easy to move funds around arbitrarily in a pure 'General' fund.

"There will be some growing pains adjusting to the new setup, but in the long run I feel it will be a positive," he added. "Until some way is figured out to keep from penalizing success by charging higher taxes on those who are successful, I don't think there will ever be a way to fairly fund government; however, I do feel this is a more proper way to account for those funds."

Nash pointed out that the county has used service districts for decades. Both recreation and fire districts began when residents voted community by community to add the services, she said. Special assessment districts have also been created for speed hump and street light fees.

She agreed that the police and fire districts help people to understand more directly how their taxes are spent.

And in the end, she said, the settlement has allowed the local governments to move forward.

"Ending the dispute, allowed the county and its cities to begin to mend the damaged relationships and focus on a return to a more cooperative approach to working on community priorities," she said.