Lilburn drops out of coalition battling county over service agreement

Lilburn officials voted Wednesday to drop out of a coalition fighting Gwinnett County over the services it provides cities.

The vote represented the first crack in a 15-city alliance that has been feuding with the county for more than two years over the accord. The Service Delivery Strategy establishes which services, such as police, fire and planning, the county will provide to its cities. Gwinnett's agreement with its cities expired in March 2008 and negotiations for a new pact have been in stalemate.

"We're representing the citizens of Lilburn and we feel this is reasonable, given the economic times," Mayor Diana Preston said. "A lot of it has to do with that we don't have a beef with the county. One size does not fit all."

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs placed the county and cities on its out-of-compliance list last month, a move that could cost them millions of dollars in state grants. Governments on the list may not receive state-administered financial aid or permits.

Moreover, the Gwinnett Municipal Association, which has represented the cities, has run up more than $325,000 in legal fees over the feud. Lilburn pitched in from $15,000 to $20,000 for its share of the litigation, according to City Manager Bill Johnsa.

Lilburn has received a proposal from the county which includes an annual payment of $372,000 as a credit for police patrol services not currently provided by the county. If the city accepts the proposal, Johnsa said, both would be required to enter into an interim agreement until the SDS litigation is resolved.

From the outset, the cities have argued that many of their residents already pay for municipal police and street service and should not pay for county services they do not receive. They want county taxes reduced for their residents. The county counters that unincorporated residents pay charges, such as licensing 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.

Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, who chairs the Gwinnett Municipal Association, said the Lilburn decision took him by surprise, but he doesn't expect it to affect the coalition's resolve.

"We're moving on," he said. "We're working diligently to reach an agreement or a court settlement, so it's all ahead full steam."

Lawrenceville Mayor Rex Millsaps said he wasn't surprised, but any city is welcome to strike their own deal with the county.

"They offered Lilburn a check and they thought that was great and they wanted to take it," Milsaps said. "They offered us a check. We don't want a check. We want the property taxes rolled back for our citizens so they quit taxing them for services they're not providing."

Milsaps also said the county has no intention of settling the issue because every month it delays means more city taxes into county coffers.

"The dollars they owe the cities is at a minimum $12 million," he said. "I hope the court makes this retroactive to 2009 when this should have been settled."

Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister said the county is looking forward to working with Lilburn to reach an agreement that matches the city's unique needs.

"We also desire to reach an agreement with all of the other Gwinnett cities," he said. "The County continues to seek a resolution that is in the best interest of all Gwinnett citizens whether they live in a city or in the unincorporated area of the county."