New budget means higher tax rates for most in Gwinnett

Declining fund revenue

General Fund: -$3.2 million

Fire and EMS: -$1.6 million

Police: -$6.9 million

Development and Enforcement: -$2 million

Source: Gwinnett County

Declining property values

2008: $29.3 billion

2009: $29 billion

2010: $26.6 billion

2011: $24.9 billion

2012: $22.7 billion

Source: Gwinnett County

2013 (projected): $22.4 billion

Estimated 2013 county millage rates

Unincorporated Gwinnett County: 13.75 mills (+0.73)

Auburn: 11.79 mills (-1.23)

Berkeley Lake: 13.39 (+0.37)

Braselton: 11.79 (-1.23)

Buford: 13.39 (+0.37)

Dacula: 13.39 (+0.37)

Duluth: 11.79 (-1.23)

Grayson: 13.39 (+0.37)

Lawrenceville: 11.79 (-1.23)

Lilburn: 11.79 (-1.23)

Loganville: 8.59 (-4.43)

Norcross: 11.79 (-1.23)

Resthaven: 13.39 (+0.37)

Snellville: 11.79 (-1.23)

Sugar Hill: 13.39 (+.37)

Suwanee: 11.79 (-1.23)

Source: Gwinnett County

Gwinnett County commissioners Thursday approved a $1.4 billion budget for 2013 that maintains public safety with status quo spending, in spite of a projected $386 million decline in countywide property values that will force many residents to pay more for the same level of services.

The county largely avoided cuts to its departments — with the notable exception of $1 million less going to libraries for new books and other materials — despite starting its budget process in a $17 million hole, which was a result of those declining home values and a legal settlement with nine cities that will result in residents there paying less to the county for police services.

County officials also had to deal with a $2 million loss of revenue because of the creation of the new city of Peachtree Corners and a combined $1.2 million that had to be added to budgets for the district attorney, tax commissioner, tax assessor and solicitor general because of changes to state law.

Higher property tax rates will be the rule not the exception, with more than eight out of 10 parcels seeing a rate increase and the rest benefiting from a decrease. Gwinnett has more than 825,000 residents on those 273,673 parcels, which also represent businesses, shopping malls and industrial complexes.

Individual tax bills will vary, of course, because of property values and exemptions claimed.

But generally, a person living in an average $157,000 home in unincorporated Gwinnett County will pay about $40 more in property taxes this year, which represents an increase of 0.73 mills. Residents with that same home value in six cities without their own police departments will pay about $20 more a year, or an extra 0.37 mills

Meanwhile, those people living in cities with their own police forces will see a rate reduction of 1.23 mills.

A mill is equal to $1 of tax paid on each $1,000 of assessed value.

Gwinnett Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, who previously worked as the county’s administrator and finance director, said this year’s budget was the most difficult and complicated she has seen in 25 years. But, she said, it could have been worse.

“It could have been as high as 3.5 mills,” Nash said of the potential tax increases. “We worked with the cities and got us down to a more reasonable figure. In September, I was miserable with the idea of what it could be.”

Collections for the police fund were hardest hit, losing $6.9 million in the coming year. Nash said there isn’t a corresponding reduction in police costs because county officers didn’t patrol those cities with their own forces. Rather, she said, those cities used the county Police Department’s special units, such as crime scene investigators and the SWAT team. Police will continue to hold vacant 25 positions, which have gone unfilled for more than a year.

“A status quo budget for police doesn’t really mean status quo because the population of the county continues to increase,” county spokesman Joe Sorenson said. “So it’s still a challenge for them.”

The county found other savings in reducing its vehicle replacement fund by $2 million and its general fund contribution to capital projects by $5 million.

In passing the budget, commissioners approved a $1.1 billion operating budget and a $389,000 million capital budget, most of which is funded by special purpose local option sales taxes approved by voters.

Library board member Dick Goodman said the cut in funding is unfortunate. But, he added, “I’m confident the library administration will demonstrate that it has the will and the creative resources to deliver to the citizens of Gwinnett the level of library service they expect and deserve.”

Steve Ramey, with the Founding Fathers Tea Party Patriots, said he lives in an average-priced home in Gwinnett and he isn’t happy about the tax increase of about $40 a year.

“I think property taxes should be dismissed totally,” Ramey said, “because you punish the people who come in and do the right thing by making their properties nice.”