LAWRENCEVILLE -- Most Gwinnett taxpayers are likely to see their tax bills increase in 2013, after commissioners Thursday approved a new spending plan linking services to districts.
The $1.3 billion 2013 budget is actually about 8 percent lower than 2012, but operating expenses are up slightly. And because not all government costs will no longer be borne by all county residents, the average resident of unincorporated areas is expected to see a $40 tax increase, when millage rates are set in the summer.
Commissioners had little to add to Chairwoman Charlotte Nash's assessment of the situation, which balances spending with another expected dip in the county's tax digest but could not account for the new service districts imposed as part of a settlement with local cities over a service delivery lawsuit.
While minor changes will also be seen in the funding of development and enforcement, where all city residents will no longer pay for the county service directed only to unincorporated areas, the biggest hit comes in the area of police protection.
There, 20 percent fewer residents will pay for the service, but Nash said there was little ability to cut the county police force, since the department has not patrolled the nine cities with their own forces in years.
"The changes in services have more to do with the special units, the crime scene unit and those things," Nash said. "There really wasn't much we could do and still maintain what we needed to do as far as police services."
Commissioners did trim $98,000 by taking out a proposed two additional approaches to the red-light camera program. Nash said she hoped to gather more information to look into the expansion to the system, which has reduced T-bone crashes at other locations.
The spending plan also cuts the subsidy to the library system by another $1 million, with Nash recommending the system direct the cut to its materials budget, making it more in line with other systems. The proposal had brought pleas from the public to maintain the subsidy.
"It's economic reality," she said, adding that she sees the value in a public library system, since her daughter is a librarian. "But what does the model of the library of the future need to be?"
Commissioner Lynette Howard suggested the commission continue to release a portion of the subsidy in quarterly installments, taking a close look after public outrage over a cut in hours at local branches.
"Our libraries need to be community centers. The citizens paid for those books and they should have access to them," she said. "We need to figure out how to have world-class libraries with the funding we are giving them."
After dealing with the projected downturn in the county's tax digest, legislative changes and the formation of Peachtree Corners, there was no room for raises to employees -- a priority Nash hopes to get to as soon as the economy turns around -- or add a planned fire station near Georgia Gwinnett College.
Among the few increases was funding for a lead investigator in the district attorney's office, which DA Danny Porter requested to help look into an increasing amount of government corruption complaints after the two commissioners were implicated in federal and local investigations.
After spending decades dealing with the government's spending plan as a staffer, Nash still describes this plan as the most difficult.
She said the impact to taxpayers could have been much greater, if city leaders had not been willing to negotiate a settlement after a judge's ruling could have raised taxes by as much as 3.5 mills, compared to the 0.73 mill increase projected for taxpayers in unincorporated areas. Paired with a cut in the recreation rate from 1 to 0.95, the total is expected to reach to 13.75 mills. That would cost owners of the average $160,000 home in unincorporated Gwinnett just under $40 more each year.
"I'm pleased we were able to get it down to less than $40," Nash said.