Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash had to juggle two factors when preparing her final county budget proposal.
One is a transition of power that will happen before the budget is even voted on by commissioners. The other is trying to account for the uncertainty surrounding what impact the COVID-19 pandemic could have on county revenues.
“It is a transitional budget,” Nash said. “(And) we’ve also taken a little bit different approach with it because of the uncertainty related to the pandemic, both impact on revenues and potential additional costs, the uncertainty of how things are going to play out, the timing of the vaccine distribution process and that sort of thing.
“So, I would use the term cautious as well transitional.”
On Tuesday morning, Nash presented her final budget proposal to county leaders, including current commissioners as well as the three new commissioners — including a new chairwoman — who will take office in January.
There wasn’t much in the way of frills in the $1.91 billion budget — which is up from the $1.84 billion approved for this year — but it does include some new items. Although it does include about 60 new positions, 33 of them are in the Gwinnett County Police Department.
The county is planning to cut general operating expenses in each department by 3%, but Nash said that will not impact employees salaries. Those are cost savings that could be made elsewhere, she said.
“That’s like office supplies, fuel, that kind of stuff,” Nash said. “The departments will just have to be a little bit more careful. We typically have under expenditure in most departments at the end of the year, so we’re in essence taking an educated estimate of what might have been left at the end of the year.”
This budget proposal was more about giving the county commission — three-fifths of which will be new faces — a basis to work with, but still have some room to take on their own projects. There is a reserve to fund items that departments requested, but which did not make it into the proposed budget.
“I tried to carve out a little bit more flexibility for the board that’s going to be in office in 2021 to put your stamp on it,” Nash told the new commissioners as well as the two commissioners who will still be in office, Marlene Fosque and Ben Ku.
“It’s an uncomfortable situation to be handed a budget that was put together by somebody else and not have some flexibility to try and address the priorities that you all have.”
Nash also had Fosque, the board’s vice-chairwoman, participate in the budget preparation process to provide continuity.
Commission Chairwoman-elect Nicole Love Hendrickson, who will have to see the budget carried out, said she plans to ask staff several questions about the budget during a meeting scheduled for next week, but she thanked Nash for the flexibility built into the budget.
“I really appreciate you giving us some flexibility for allowing us to have funding in the budget to do some things that we want to do collectively as board,” Hendrickson said. “There are some things, from a goals standpoint, that we would like to address collectively and I think that it is very important that we have that flexibility.”
Nash said in response, “You have the flexibility. It’s your budget. I just tried to give you an easy starting point.”
There are some projects Nash tucked into the budget, however.
A key project is a citizens advisory board, which will be tied to the Gwinnett County Police Department’s new Community Affairs Section.
“This advisory board will assist the Gwinnett County Police Department with collaborating with the community and with creating transparency and professionalism, and incorporating best practices and national standards,” Gwinnett Financial Services Director Buffy Alexzulian said.
Elsewhere in the proposed budget, in a response to the pandemic, there is $500,000 in additional funding to expand the Gwinnett Health Department’s epidemiology and infectious disease program.
“This program provides resources to protect Gwinnett County citizens from various dangerous infectious diseases,” Alexzulian said.
It will also include $600,000 for the HomeFirst Gwinnett program, which Nash said will be supplemented by funding that will be left over from this year to cover the programs needs. This year, for example, $1 million was set aside to address homelessness in the county.
“There’s some funding that’s going to be left this year that the staff felt like the $600,000 was going to be enough to handle the continuing costs for next year,” Nash.
Other items in the budget include:
♦ Funding for two new parks (Discovery and Beaver Ruin Parks)
♦ $700,000 for an airport master plan and maintenance projects at Briscoe Field
♦ $8 million for the expansion of the police training facility and improvements at the county’s fire academy
♦ The Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center, which will open in early 2021 through a partnership with Georgia Gwinnett College
♦ Four new full-time positions in the Elections Division to address increased voter needs in the county
♦ Three roadway maintenance positions in the Transportation Department
♦ 30 sworn police officers
♦ Two IT positions to implement an Integrated Public Safety Solution that will be rolled out next year
♦ A Police Department resource and marketing coordinator
♦ A recycling and waste reduction project coordinator
♦ Two crime and intelligence positions in the Police Department for the Situational Awareness and Crime Response Center
♦ A project coordinator position in the Transportation Department to act as a technology coordinator to implement the Automated Transportation Management System.
A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held at 7 p.m. on Dec. 9 at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center. The county commission is scheduled to vote on approving the budget at its Jan. 5 meeting.