If Gwinnett County’s budget revenues take a hit in 2021 because of lingering effects from the COVID-19 coronavirus disease pandemic, candidates vying to be the county’s next commission chairman offered a variety of solutions this past week.
The candidates talked during a forum hosted by five community improvement districts on Wednesday about issues that are of interest to the CIDs, such as plans for the OFS site and Gwinnett Place Mall, as well as plans for addressing transit and transportation in general.
But, it was hard to ignore the looming COVID-19 issue outright, given that it forced the forum itself to be conducted online. One of the questions posed to candidates was how they would handle a 15% to 20% decrease in revenues in 2021 as chairman.
“One of the main things we have to do right now is tighten our belts,” Desmond Nembhard, a Democrat, said. “What I would hope is that the current administration would seek to find some funding from both the federal government and the state to help out with the shortfall, which is coming, and that would make a big difference because the last thing we want to do is raise taxes on anyone because now is not the time for that.”
It remains to be seen how county revenues will be affected in the long-term by the pandemic. While special purpose local option sales taxes, as the name suggests, depend on sales taking place at stores, property taxes — which are based on property values — is the major revenue source in the county budget.
In addition to Nembhard, participants in the forum included fellow Democrats Curt Thompson, Lee Thompson, Andy Morgan and Nicole Love Hendrickson, and Republicans David Post, Marcia Neaton and George Awuku.
The uncertain nature of the pandemic’s impact on county revenues was something some candidates brought up.
“(The affect on revenues is) going to depend on how long it goes on and how long it takes people to get back to doing things such as going to restaurants and attending the theater,” Lee Thompson said. “Also, are we going to have vacant buildings or foreclosures, and we don’t really know that at this point, but it’s certainly something that we’re going to have to study carefully.
“And, to put the question in perspective, if we had to cut 15-20% out of the budget, that’s more than we actually spend together on the police department and the fire department. So that would be huge cuts that we would be talking about that would be extremely difficult decisions for anyone to make.”
Several candidates outlined steps ranging from prioritizing services and making cuts to looking at raising the county government’s portion of the millage rate, which determines how much property owners pay in property taxes.
“I would go in and look at the numbers and develop a priority list,” Post said. “I think we have to realize the job of the chairman is to find the answers and there are a lot of brilliant people in Gwinnett County that not only work for the county, but would be happy to volunteer some of their time and their learning to help move things along. It’s going to be a very difficult process.
“There’s going to have to be a priority list. We’re going to have to cut where we need to cut, but we may need to add where we need to add because there might be some areas of public safety that are going to have to be increased.”
Morgan said the remainder of this year, up to the next eight months, will offer a view of how the county’s finances for 2021 may shape up. He said he would ask the finance department to conduct a cash flow analysis and ask department heads to take three steps. The first two are to ask them to produce leaner budgets and to have budgets that anticipate a 10% reduction in revenues and a 20% reduction in revenues so areas where adjustments are needed can be identified.
“The other thing I’m going to look at is our tax base as far as the property taxes,” he said. “Sure we’ll be impacted by the sales taxes (but) we have to also look at the property valuations to see if there’s an adjustment. If there’s an adjustment (to property values), I would consider making a millage rate increase to at least bring us back up to a level where we were before.
“The impact to our tax payers will not be as noticeable if you’re paying what you were paying before. We definitely have to continue to manage the situation.”
Curt Thompson and Neaton endorsed zero-based budgeting by county officials with a focus on select priority areas. Thompson said officials should also work to rebuild the county’s business community to repair any damage the pandemic did to the economy.
“Our top priority is, and should remain, public safety, followed by planning and transit,” Thompson said. “And as time progresses, the county will need to review its practices to how we support and encourage small businesses. We’re going to have to work to prioritize that small business community to make sure that, in this post COVID-19 environment, that they have every room to get restarted that we can give them.”
Neaton said hard costs such as new buildings would have to be pushed back, and that belt tightening would need to take place on “soft costs.”
“The first thing I would do, straight out of the gate, is make a statement that public safety would not, in any way, be impacted by this,” Neaton said. “We’ve got to protect our first responders. They are outstanding in what they do and we cannot impede them in any way.”
Awuku said he would like to see non-core services deferred by the county, although he also said he wouldn’t make any cuts to public safety. He said he would also like to see more private sector involvement in functions the government has taken on in the past.
“We could see some parts of government being done by the private sector, which tends to be more competitive, and we would be saving the taxpayers more money that way,” he said.
But, Hendrickson, who worked in county government until she stepped down earlier this year to run for the chairman’s seat, offered an optimistic view on the budget.
“Gwinnett County, right now, is in pretty good standing because we only rely on sales tax for capital projects, whereas some of our other metro area counties rely heavily on sales taxes for operating costs, from funding staff and providing water and maintaining roads and things like that,” she said. “However, our budget, which is only 12% made up of sales tax, only goes to capital projects. That is not going affect us as much as (other) metro counties and we’re going to be cushioned from the blow.”