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County receiving little input on potential tax hike

LAWRENCEVILLE—Few residents are taking advantage of their chance to give the Gwinnett County Commission input on potentially higher tax bills in 2014.

On Monday, commissioners held the first two of three public hearings on a proposed millage rate of 13.75 mills for unincorporated Gwinnett, but only two residents took the opportunity to speak.

The rate is the same as in 2013, though it would result in a higher bill for residents whose property values have increased from last year. The commission expects to vote on the rate July 15 at 2 p.m.

Both residents who spoke Monday questioned why the county couldn’t reduce the financial burden for the people of Gwinnett. Dacula resident Jason Smith asked what needs were so pressing that some taxpayers would have to pay more.

Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash told Smith the county is trying to make itself whole again, after the commission decided against adjusting the millage rate to compensate for the declining the tax digest in the last several years. In 2014, Gwinnett’s tax digest is up for the first time since 2008.

“We’re at the point now that we can’t do things like open fire stations and add (medical) units that we need to provide services at the appropriate level,” she said. “Those are the things we know that are out there waiting for us.”

Nash said the population has also gone up by 50,000 in the last four years, leading to greater public safety needs.

Not considering exemptions, the 13.75 rate would help the county bring in about $30 more from a taxpayer whose home was worth $150,000 in 2013.

While the commission is considering the rate, the chairwoman clarified that the 13.75 mills is essentially the cap, which has to be advertised per state law, and she said the number could end up lower in the end. State law is also the reason for the hearings, as it requires local governments to meet the requirements of a tax increase when considering a millage rate that wouldn’t equal or reduce the tax burden from the previous year.

For the county to legally claim it wasn’t raising taxes, it would have to reduce the rate to 13.25 mills, because of the increase in the digest. School board members went through the same process, voting last month to use the same rate as in 2013.

Commissioners Lynette Howard and John Heard have said they would were supportive of keeping the county rate the same. Commissioner Tommy Hunter, though, isn’t exactly a fan of the idea.

“I don’t like taxes. I’m no different than anybody else,” Hunter said Monday.

But he wondered if it’s responsible for the county to not take the opportunity to restore services while it has the chance.

“It’s tough. It’s a tough place to be,” Hunter said. “And I’m not going to make any complete decision until after we hear what everybody has to say, but if I had my druthers, I’d (reduce taxes).”

Chief Financial Officer Maria Woods gave presentations at both hearings, highlighting the need for more revenue.

“We had to respond to the decrease in revenues by reducing workforce, holding vacant positions open for 90 days, cutting operational budgets, eliminating or delaying new capital projects, deferring major maintenance projects,” she said of the sacrifices during the economic downturn. “However, not all of the reductions are sustainable.”

Specifically, the tight purse strings have forced the county to hold off on projects, such as a planned fire station near Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville and replacing the roof on the 26-year-old county justice and administration building.

And while the revenue was falling as the Great Recession rocked the economy, increased health care costs and regulatory mandates also hit the county’s coffers, the CFO said.

Though there are needs, Nash said the commission was trying to keep the taxpayers’ needs in mind as well.

“We’ve got to be sensitive to the taxpayers, too,” she said.

The final public hearing is set for 6:30 p.m. July 14. Written comments will also be accepted online at www.gwinnettcounty.com.