Gwinnett vote sets stage for $225M in budget cuts

While more than 400 partisan residents sat in silence, Gwinnett County commissioners Tuesday approved a policy that lays the groundwork for $225 million in budget cuts over five years.

The measure paves the way for the county to recast future operational plans and bring them in line with declining revenues and a mandate for no tax increases.

“Today’s vote is not the final word,” Commission Chairman Charles Bannister said. “This vote is needed to right the ship.”

Several groups had formed recently to petition the commission to spare emergency services from the budget ax. Their campaigns, along with social service interest groups, generated more than 260 phone calls and emails to commissioners in the past week.

But there were only two alterations made to save programs in the current budget year. Commissioner Mike Beaudreau recommended preserving funding to the police Quality of Life code enforcement unit and for “287 (g)” immigration enforcement.

To pay for those additions (about $833,000), he recommended raising transit fees by 50 cents and charging park fees.

The 2009 cuts still include eliminating 250 positions, including about 50 police. County officials say they hope to have offered early retirement packages and have those staffing cuts in place by mid-September.

Bannister said the board has rarely heard from citizens during the budget process and he welcomed the interest. The real decisions, he said, will come in November and December, when the 2010 budget is drawn up.

Late Monday, the county announced establishment of a community engagement initiative to examine the Gwinnett’s five-year needs for critical services. The initiative, in partnership with the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and other business and civic leaders, will also study future funding strategies.

Following Tuesday’s vote, more than a dozen residents addressed the commission to argue for more citizen involvement in the budgeting process.

Janelle Clodfelter of Duluth recommended the county increase police services as a means of attracting residents. She said her neighborhood initiated a fee for added police patrols three years ago and virtually eradicated home and car burglaries.

“Added security will actually increase revenues,” she said following the meeting. “If people feel safe, they’ll move here.”

Her sentiments were echoed by other residents and several speakers representing the police department.

“We are in a shooting war with the Mexican drug cartels,” said Richard Long of Buford. “They are on a war footing with us and we need to be on a war footing with them.”

John Cook of Lilburn accused the commission of paying lip service to police while voting to eliminate funding for a police precinct in Grayson last March. That action, Cook said, was in direct retaliation for a proposal Commissioner Beaudreau had made to offer more cuts in the budget.

“I think it’s atrocious,” he said, “that any one of our commissioners cannot feel free to bring proposed budget cuts to the table without being punished by the rest of you.”