Danger was clearly on Gwinnett's horizon

When the going gets tough, politicians run for cover. Case in point: the Gwinnett County Commission in resolving the very late 2009 county budget.

“Difficult decisions are ahead of us,” declared Commissioner Mike Beaudreau. True, but only because the BOC failed to act when the decisions could have been a lot easier, like last year.

Day after day, the commission announces drastic cuts in response to the refusal of taxpayers to swallow a more than 25-percent millage rate increase in the middle of the worst economic disaster in four generations.

Commissioner Bert Nasuti reminded voters that the county has not had a tax increase in 13 years, as if it were entitled to one based on longevity or good behavior. This argument is more than a little disingenuous. While tax rates haven’t increased, the county took in no less money. As more property was developed and assessments rose, county revenue grew significantly. And so did expenses. Grow-and-spend was the operational mantra. Staffing for new parks, libraries, police stations and fire houses; raises and generous benefits for employees; and even a baseball stadium (in ancient Rome it would have been bread and circuses). As long as property values grew, all was in balance.

But like a giant Ponzi scheme, this couldn’t go on. As recently as last year there were clear signs that development in the county was slowing. It didn’t yet look like a full-blown economic disaster, but property tax revenue was predicted in the county’s 2008 budget to be lower than the prior year. Despite this, the 2008 budget called for increased spending, with a budget gap of about $37 million. The commission had a golden opportunity to fix the problem for that year and for years to come. But it took a pass.

The BOC could have reduced spending, which might have meant cuts far less severe than those now being proposed, or proposed a modest tax increase. In early 2008, the value of people’s homes and investments hadn’t yet tanked. Taxpayers might have yawned at a millage rate increase. But 2008 was an election year for several commissioners, including the chairman.

So instead of cutting spending or increasing taxes, either of which might have provided election fodder for opponents to commission incumbents, the BOC punted. It filled the gap with funds from the reserve fund. No muss, no fuss, and everybody wins. That is, everybody on the commission wins re-election.

Failing to appropriately respond to the budget gap when it had the chance, the commission now faces “difficult decisions.” Rather than accept responsibility, the commissioners have run for cover. Don’t blame them for the “painful” and “drastic” cuts. True to form, the commissioners are blaming those selfish taxpayers who opposed the tax increase. Things really must be tough.

Dick Goodman, a writer and photographer, lives in Suwanee.