Loganville officials hail judge's order ending ‘double taxation' for fire services

For years, Loganville officials have complained that Gwinnett County firefighters show up at city fires when they’re not needed.

They say Gwinnett charges city residents for that unneeded service, which they call "double taxation."

Recently, in a decision that could have far-reaching implications for Gwinnett taxpayers, Enotah Judicial Circuit Judge David Barrett agreed.

In a lawsuit that has pitted the county against its 15 cities, Barrett ruled Gwinnett’s actions in Loganville have created “an unnecessary duplication of services and funding inequity” in violation of state law.

The ruling follows years of squabbling and litigation among local officials over who provides and pays for a host of government services.

City officials complain their residents pay county property taxes to support services like fire and police protection that primarily benefit those who live in unincorporated areas. County officials say their services benefit city residents as well, so they should help pay for them.

In his Sept. 23 ruling, Barrett sided squarely with Loganville and the other cities.

Loganville officials are celebrating. “We’re elated,” Mayor Ray Nunley said.

Gwinnett County has long provided fire protection to 14 of its cities under service delivery agreements. Gwinnett also provides emergency medical transport service to the entire county, including Loganville.

But Loganville, a city of 10,458 people that lies mostly in Walton County, has had its own fire department since 1946. So under a 1999 service delivery agreement its residents did not pay county property taxes for fire service.

Instead, Gwinnett established a fire protection district that included all of the county except Loganville. Residents of that district paid a property tax levy of 1.87 mills for fire protection.

But in 2005 the Gwinnett County Commission eliminated the district and shifted the fire protection levy to the county’s general fund, which pays for a variety of basic services.

The shift did not affect the total property tax rate for most Gwinnett residents. But those who lived in the Gwinnett portion of Loganville saw their rate jump 1.87 mills. The tax increase cost the owner of a $150,000 home in the Gwinnett portion of Loganville an extra $93.50 a year.

City officials say those residents are paying for county fire service they don’t need.

“We furnish fire protection for the citizens within the city,” Nunley said. “They’ve been double-taxed by the county.”

County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash declined to discuss the fire protection issue, citing ongoing litigation and negotiations.

In court records, Gwinnett officials said they provide integrated fire and emergency medical services to the entire county. Because of cross-training Gwinnett no longer has separate firefighting and EMS staffs. The same employees fight fires and administer medical care.

In a sworn statement, Gwinnett Fire Chief Bill Myers said the county has long responded to Loganville fires even in the absence of a formal agreement to do so. Court records indicate Gwinnett responded to more than 60 fires in the Gwinnett portion of Loganville from 1999 through 2009.

“No one from the city of Loganville or its fire department has ever informed me or suggested to me that they did not want [the department] to respond to fires within the city limits of Loganville,” Myers said.

What’s more, Myers said his Loganville counterpart had encouraged him to keep responding, even after the litigation began.

Loganville Fire Chief Danny Roberts declined to comment.

“I’m not really privy to that,” Nunley said of Myers' statement. “That may or may not be true.”

True or not, Barrett ruled that Gwinnett’s decision to start charging Loganville residents for fire protection violated previous service agreements with the city. He also ruled the tax increase for city residents violated a state law that requires public notice of such increases.

Barrett ordered Gwinnett to re-establish a fire protection district that excludes Loganville and to charge only residents of that district for fire service. He also ordered the county to establish similar districts for police and other services.

The order might shift the burden of paying for a host of services from some city residents to those who live in unincorporated Gwinnett or in other cities.

For example, Barrett ruled Gwinnett can only charge residents in Duluth, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Norcross and unincorporated Gwinnett for bus service because they are the ones who directly benefit from that service. That could mean an increased tax burden for residents of those areas.

Nash said the county might appeal Barrett’s order. She said Gwinnett and its cities were close to resolving their differences before the judge released his order, and that negotiations continue.

Some city officials also hope for a negotiated settlement. But having won his argument in court, Loganville’s Nunley doesn’t sound so eager.

“We were very pleased with the judge’s ruling,” he said. “I wouldn’t negotiate at this point.”