Gwinnett, cities face state sanctions

Gwinnett County and its cities are running out of time to settle a yearlong tax dispute or face the loss of millions in state grants.

But, so far, the threat of state sanctions hasn't lit a fire under either side. A Tuesday evening negotiating session ended with no agreement, and no further meetings are scheduled this week, according to officials with the county and the cities.

Chief Judge David E. Barrett of the Enotah Judicial Circuit set Feb. 1 as the deadline for both sides to agree on which county services city residents should pay for. The judge's order, issued Jan. 15, means the Georgia Department of Community Affairs can withhold grants because both parties are in violation of a state law requiring counties and cities to agree to a service delivery strategy. The old agreement expired last March, but Barrett has stayed state sanctions until now.

Besides the financial impact, city and county departments cannot obtain permits to expand water or sewer systems or extend or repair water or sewer lines that run on state right of way.

"We're painfully aware of it," said Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, president of the Gwinnett Municipal Association. "We don't want sanctions, but we've said all along the county won't settle without sanctions in place."

"Honestly, this is the first time [a service dispute] has gone this far," he said. "We want to be sure we do it right, because the sanctions are no fun at all."

So far, the dispute has rung up $300,000 in legal fees for the cities. The county has accumulated nearly $207,000 in legal fees, plus paid a retired employee $1,258 to assist in the process.

The cities argue that, because many of their residents pay for municipal police and street service, they should not pay for county services they do not receive. The county counters that unincorporated residents pay a number of fees to the county that help cover the cost of services. City residents pay the same fees, but they go into city coffers. As a result, the county argues, unincorporated residents pay for all county services, while city residents pay for about 88 percent.

The county's negotiating position was weakened last month when the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed a decision by Barrett that, in most cases, the county cannot roll back taxes for unincorporated residents based on this fee discrepancy. That ruling erased about two-thirds of the county's argument. Under state law, the county can still use the insurance premium taxes it receives to roll back taxes for unincorporated residents.

More than 80 percent of Gwinnett's 790,000 residents live outside cities.