Gwinnett unveils trimmed-down budget for 2011

Gwinnett County plans to cut expenses by 4.1 percent next year as it struggles to maintain core services without raising taxes.

The proposed $1.3 billion budget for 2011, unveiled Wednesday, includes an $18 million deficit county officials hope to reconcile through the year, finance director Aaron Bovos said. Anticipated revenues are expected to be down almost across the board.

The biggest cut, $216 million, comes in the capital budget. That represents a 39 percent decrease from 2010 spending on building and construction.

The proposed operating budget of $977 million is down $32 million, or 3.2 percent, from 2010.

Going into the 2011 budget process, the county faced a $47.5 million deficit, Bovos said. Reductions submitted through departments trimmed $5.7 million, and another $2.3 million was cut in service reductions to county departments.

To make up for the remaining shortfall, the county plans to appropriate $33 million from its reserves, an unusual move for a county with the highest bond rating attainable. For years, the county has maintained a reserve fund equal to about three months of operating expenses, currently about $119 million. This reserve is one factor used to determine a county's credit rating.

A one-time transfer to shore up finances during trying times should not threaten the county's AAA bond rating, Bovos said, as plans are to make it up with cuts during the year.

One of the more noticeable cuts will come within the county library system, which will get $2.8 million less in funding than the $18.9 million it received this year.

Gwinnett's library system faced a similar funding crisis last year before county commissioners approved a 21 percent hike in the property tax rate. Part of the increased revenue from that tax hike went to ensure that the county's 15 neighborhood branch libraries could stay open about 50 hours a week. The libraries currently are open 53 hours each week.

Last year's tax hike also helped bolster Gwinnett's police and fire departments, but that won't happen in 2011. The police department, which gained 56 officers this year, will hold steady in positions. And the fire department, which opened three new stations this year, likewise will continue to operate at current manpower levels.

The only increase in staff, a net of one employee, comes because of a new state law requiring counties to notify property owners of their current assessed value. Overall, in staffing and support services, it will cost the county $1.7 million to implement the new law, Bovos said.

In the meantime, a hiring freeze remains in effect for all departments.

Subsidized agencies also will get less. The Council for Seniors, Department of Family and Children's Services, tri-county mental health and indigent medical services all face funding reductions of 50 percent.

At the same time, the costs of the Hi Hope Center for adults with developmental difficulties and the children's shelter are being transferred to the federal Community Development Block Grant allocation.