Citizens' panel weighs Gwinnett emergency services

Less than a week before Gwinnett County holds its first public hearing on a tax increase to shore up emergency services, a citizens group got a preview  Thursday on where the money would go.

Members of Engage Gwinnett, a 40-member citizens advisory panel, heard from police, sheriff and fire representatives at its regular bi-monthly meeting. . Department officials presented cases that budget cuts have them strapped for every penny and without added revenues, services could suffer.

The panel is expected to make recommendations for 2011 budget. Commission Chairman Charles Bannister has hinted, however, he may poll members as work progresses on the 2010 budget.

Police Chief Charles Walters told committee members his department has already suffered from budget cuts but the impact to police services may be greater next year with 10 percent cuts in the offing.  Through 2009, the county Police Department has cut 44 positions and now stands at 696 sworn officers, according to county records.  The 2010 budget plan does not include additional hiring. 

"You've not seen a difference [this year] because the folks in this department have picked up and done what they're supposed to do," Walters said. But, he added, as the ratio of police to population falls, residents will notice the change, particularly in emergency response times and police presence on the street.

The tax increase proposal would generate $52.6 million in additional revenue to help restore emergency services, parks, recreation and other operations pared by budget cuts earlier this year. The increase, if passed, would add slightly more than $13 a month in county property taxes on a $200,000 house, or about $160 a year. Public hearings on the measure are scheduled for 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday at the Gwinnett courthouse. The final public hearing will be Dec. 1.

Representatives from local tax protest groups have said they are willing to concede a small tax increase to maintain emergency services, but they have not signed off on the whole proposal.

Following the chief's remarks, Engage Gwinnett committee member Keith Shewbert of Norcross said he has always been an advocate for a strong police presence.

"I've been working a lot in southwest Gwinnett on redevelopment and revitalization," he said. "The No. 1 concern among people is security. People have to feel safe in their homes and businesses. If people don't feel safe, they're not going to move here, they're not going to site their businesses here."

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