Rick Badie's Gwinnett: There’s praise amid the grousing

You might say 2009 was Gwinnett County’s year of controversy.

In May, the County Commission proposed a 25 percent to 28 percent higher tax rate on property. Residents, naturally, cried foul, but in the end, county officials adopted a $1.33 billion spending plan for 2010 that included a 21 percent increase in the county portion of property taxes.

It was also the year that: a special grand jury was impaneled to investigate the County Commission’s land purchases over the past four years; five lawsuits were filed against the county in opposition to a mandatory garbage collection system; and a recall effort was first launched against Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister.

You’d think these well-publicized issues would sour residents’ sentiment and views about the community. Just a bit. You’d think a noticeable number of the 800,000 or so residents would be angry, eaten up with despair and discontent about what’s taking place in the county they call home. You’d think the level of satisfaction with government and its services would take a hit that would be reflected in surveys and polls.

In Gwinnett, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Recently, the county was part of a quality of life survey conducted by the A.L. Burruss Institute of Public Service and Research at Kennesaw State University. Targeted areas also included Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb and Clayton counties. According to the findings, Gwinnett had the highest level of respondents who said their area overall was a good or very good place to live. A whopping 86.6 percent said as much in the survey. Respondents offered high praise to the county’s schools, police protection, litter control, libraries and availability of medical care.

Even Richard Engstrom, the Burruss Institute director, expressed surprise that the approval levels were so high, though he expected Gwinnett would do well.

“The reason we weren’t surprised by the fact that the scores were good is that Gwinnett has a reputation for collecting a lot of high-quality data about the needs and opinions of their residents,” he said. “The fact that the ratings are so high seems to indicate that the county and the communities in Gwinnett, on average, do a good job of using those data.”

Of course, you wouldn’t expect Gwinnett to fare as poorly as Clayton, which in the KSU survey had the lowest satisfaction levels with government service. There, only 52.6 percent of respondents said the county was a good or very good place to live. But why so little discontent in Gwinnett?

Engstrom said respondents were asked to rate their services as they exist, which they seem to be quite pleased with. Had they been asked about the direction of government spending and costs of services, he said, resident responses may have taken a different tone.

“In short, residents might be frustrated about possibly losing something they value and appreciate as much as their parks, libraries and other services,” Engstrom said. Perhaps the possibility of losing or experiencing a decline in parks and libraries is a question better suited for next year.

Rick Badie, an Opinion columnist, is based in Gwinnett. Reach him at rbadie@ajc.com or 770-263-3875.