New library, 3 fire stations but no money for staff

Gwinnett wrestles with budget reality

While Gwinnett County officials mine for more budget cuts, work continues on a handful of new government buildings that will likely stand vacant when completed.

Three fire stations and a state-of-the-art library — representing altogether more than $21 million in construction costs — are expected to be completed this year. And the county has no money to staff them.

Cuts in the 2009 budget have all but assured there would be no manning three new fire stations. And the library announced this week it will close all of its 14 branches two days a week and cut hours.

The buildings were funded through revenues from the 2005 special purpose local option sales tax, an initiative passed by the voters to increase or update structures, equipment or property. Voters extended the tax for five more years last November.

By law, money generated through the tax — about $700 million projected through 2014 — is earmarked for capital improvements in transportation, recreation, libraries, public safety and court facilities. But the money cannot be used for operations, such as paying salaries.

"We just don't have enough revenue to support everything we've built," said Mike Comer, deputy county administrator.'' We certainly regret the measures we're taking."

Comer said the county does not advise the library which buildings it should staff, but operational budgets are being strained because of the 2009 cuts.

"We don't tell the library what they can open and not open," he said. "I understand the cuts will present a severe problem for them."

Michelle Long, spokeswoman for the library system, said opening for the $7.4-million Hamilton Mill Library has been delayed but would not speculate for how long. The county had originally planned to have the facility operational this winter.

The 2009 budget had originally called for the addition of 66 positions to staff the new fire stations. Those additions have been taken off the table.

While the new buildings sit vacant, the county conspicuously is opening four new parks this year at a cost of more than $17 million in SPLOST funds. Plans also call for more than $2 million in renovations to existing parks. The county has already spent $3.4 million to buy some 87 acres to expand another two parks.

Community Services Director Phil Hoskins said when project lists were put together for this year's SPLOST expenditures, it became evident that operational costs were a big consideration.

He said the department is now leaning toward more passive projects, like Settles Bridge Park, scheduled to open next month near Sugar Hill. The $3.62-million park does not feature any high-maintenance amenities, such as a swimming pool or convention center, Hoskins said.

The department has already decided to delay work on two other parks scheduled to begin this year. Renovations at four other parks, totaling $18 million, have all been moved back to 2014, Hoskins said.

"One thing we will be looking at is renovating and updating what we have instead of adding parks," he said.

But the budget crunch is already taking a discernible toll on existing facilities.

"We've had to reduce maintenance services," he said. "We can't clean bathrooms on weekends anymore."