Gwinnett, cities up ante in tax war

County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister blasted the cities for threatening to sue the state for not immediately imposing sanctions against both sides, a move that could cost both millions in grant funding.

“The sanctions that will be imposed by the [Georgia] Department of Community Affairs will affect all residents of this county, and to urge the imposition of such sanctions at the earliest possible date seems counter to the best interests of all of our citizens," Bannister said.

State law requires all counties and cities to have working agreements detailing which services municipalities receive from the county and what residents should pay for them in taxes.

Gwinnett's agreement with its 15 cities expired a year ago, leaving it and the cities vulnerable to state sanctions. Penalties include the loss of state grants and denial of permits to expand water or sewer systems or extend or repair water or sewer lines that run on state right of way.

Ever since the deadline passed last March, the county has managed to keep the sanctions lifted by court order. But last month Chief Judge David E. Barrett of the Enotah Judicial Circuit said they would be restored on Feb. 1 if the two sides hadn't reached an agreement. Because the Department of Community Affairs only imposes the penalties three times a year  -- the earliest being at the end of February -- no action has been taken.

In a letter dated Tuesday, Buddy Welch, attorney for the cities, threatened to file a motion for contempt today against the commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs if he did not obey Barrett's order and enforce the penalties immediately. He gave Commissioner Michael Beatty until 2 p.m. today to comply.

Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, who heads the Gwinnett Municipal Association, which represents the cities, said they are merely trying to get the county to follow the law, something, he said they've argued for all along. When the judge issues an order, he said, that's the law.

In a statement released late Tuesday, Bannister said the cities have consistently argued that sanctions were the only avenue available to get the county to negotiate a settlement. Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.

“We are currently working overtime to reach a settlement with the cities that is fair to all of Gwinnett’s citizens," he said. "This takes time but can -- and, I hope, will -- happen."

Last year, Gwinnett received $34.6 million in state grants, mostly for transportation.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.