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Staff raises, budget approved for Gwinnett government

LAWRENCEVILLE — Sharon Wilkerson couldn’t help but applaud Tuesday, as commissioners approved a 2014 budget for the Gwinnett County government.

The highlight for Wilkerson and the other 4,800 county employees was a 3 percent raise coming later this month, the first since the county became mired in recession.

“We haven’t had (a pay increase) in five years, and things have gone up so much, groceries and gas,” said Wilkerson, who works in the tax assessor’s office and took a break Tuesday afternoon to see if commissioners would approve the plan. “I think we all deserve it.”

Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash and other officials said the retention of employees is a high priority in the first county spending plan to include an increase in expected tax revenues, after years of drastic drops in property values left officials cutting spending.

While government staffers have done without program enhancements for years, Nash said she appreciated them continuing to constrain their requests in the eased financial times.

“Folks dug in deep and worked hard to keep down costs, so we could manage a pay raise for employees,” she said, adding that the spending plan closely followed a commissioner project to set goals, which included employee appreciation and citizen outreach. “That made it easier to prioritize.”

In addition, the $1.5 billion total budget includes covering additional health care costs, in part due to the Affordable Care Act, and adds staffers needed due to juvenile justice reform at the state Legislature.

Money was earmarked to add two new ambulance crews to the county fire department and to enhance public outreach, including the creation of a Gwinnett Citizens Academy.

Jon Richards, a Lawrenceville resident who attended Tuesday’s session, said that, as a taxpayer, he supports the pay raise.

“It’s probably good that they were able to get some more compensation. If you want good people, you’ve got to pay for it,” he said, adding that the spending seems appropriate. “Look at the additional expenses they had to deal with due to state and federal mandates. There appeared to be a lot of things outside the county’s control.”

But to know that taxes won’t go up was the most reassuring to him.

“It’s good to hear that property tax digest is starting to recover,” he said.