The County Commission spent approximately two hours on Monday hearing primarily from angry residents, most of whom adamantly oppose the proposed 2.28 mill tax increase. The third and final hearing will be held on Tuesday, December 1 at 7:00 pm in the auditorium of the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.
As promised, what follows is my compromise proposal. It is based, in no small amount, on the mostly thoughtful feedback that I have received from the dozens of you. It is also founded, however, on a very hefty dose of political and financial reality, as well as my desire to move forward and make something positive out of a very bad situation.
First, The Reality
The ox is in the ditch. Our county’s finances are in a crisis. The national economic mess has hit at the least opportune time, when our own economy was at a critical transition point. We could have weathered the storm better, but decades of poor growth management and the last five years of unimaginative, reactive leadership has left county officials ill-equipped to respond to the emergency.
It is dangerous to focus on baseball stadiums, bad land deals and shifty politicians. Looking for a scapegoat leaves you paralyzed; unable to move forward. It’s okay to ask “why are we here?” so long as you quickly move on to “how do we get beyond here?”
Our Commission has left us with few options for the 2009 budget. No sale of the stadium– no tax on tourists and renters– no elimination of the Commissioners’ salaries– is going to solve the problem for this year. In fact, at this point it isn’t even realistic to expect the county to cut its way out of this crisis. For 2009, in my opinion, the only viable option is a tax increase.
The Political Realities
The Commissioners know that they are out of options. For that reason, they will vote to enact a millage increase at some level on December 1. The vote will likely be 4-1; District 3′s Mike Beaudreau will continue to honor his conservative Republican sensibilities. It’s a safe vote for him, although it doesn’t make him part of the solution.
Our best hope, then, is that the Commission will be willing to accept a compromise.
I believe I speak for a majority of Gwinnett residents when I say that, if the Commissioners expect us to support the tax increase, they can forget it. However, I am willing to accept a reduced millage increase if I know that there will be a measurable and immediate return; that our elected officials will move forward immediately on several key issues.
My Plan for “Millage Rate 2009”
I suggest that the Commission immediately move forward on five key issues. These five do not represent the entire solution, but meaningful steps toward increasing non-property tax revenues; minimizing the cost of our government; and establishing future accountability.
- Remove the “2010 Budget Deficit” and “2010 Reduction in Digest” Expenses
I described in detail how these two line items are inappropriate for inclusion in this millage increase. Elimination of just these two items will reduce the increase to between 1.55 and 1.75 mills.
Not funding these items will, however, put greater pressure on the staff and the Engage Gwinnett committee to reduce service levels and/or identify non-tax revenue sources. It is possible that Gwinnett property owners might face another, smaller tax hike in 2010.
But, if these two items are not removed, we lose the opportunity to make a difference.
You might say: “But recreation is not a core, essential function of government! We should not impose a tax increase for ballfield lights and aquatic centers!”
And I would agree with you. However, Commissioner Kevin Kenerly represents a key vote on this issue, primarily because he is the only Commissioner who has named a specific reason for imposing an increase– he wants to restore the funding that subsidizes the county’s youth associations.
To ensure funding for what is arguably not a core government service, Kenerly may be willing to strike a deal. Keep in mind that the portion of the increase for recreation is only about 11% of the total while the 2010 items represent about 32%. To protect 11%, Kenerly may be willing to remove 32%… and concede to the other items in my compromise proposal.
- Immediately Create the Impact Fee Advisory Committee
Impact fees serve to transfer the capital costs of new public facilities (fire stations, roads, libraries, etc.) to the homeowners and businesses who not only create the need for the new infrastructure but will be the most likely to use it. Impact fees represent a significant non-tax revenue source that can reduce the government’s dependence on property taxes.
The Engage Gwinnett committee’s charge includes identifying non-property tax revenue sources. The committee’s recommendation is likely to include impact fees, especially since a previous citizen committee has already advised the Commission to move forward with a program.
State law requires that, prior to adopting an impact ordinance, the Commission must appoint a committee of citizens to advise and oversee the process. The timeline from start to implementation can take six months to a year, so to expedite the creation of the impact fee program and in anticipation of Engage Gwinnett’s recommendation, the Commission must lay the groundwork immediately.
- Adopt and Implement the Recommendations of the 2007 Ethics Study
Over two years ago, the Commission retained a consultant to examine the need for an ethics policy and a citizen panel to enforce it; then promptly shelved the consultant’s recommendation. Their decision was extremely unfortunate, especially given the controversies that have swirled around them since the day that they decided that an ethics panel wasn’t needed.
Trust of our county elected officials is at an all-time low, which has made it difficult for taxpayers to trust that the Commission has their best interests at heart with this tax hike. The Commission must authorize the citizens ethics panel and allow it to create and enforce an ethics policy.
- Require Participation in E-Verify for a Business License
Illegal immigrants constitute a measurable drain on public resources. For example, a joint month-long action earlier this year with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) identified 907 illegal alien arrestees in our jail. At $45 dollars a day—the cost to house one prisoner– the daily hit on law enforcement and court budgets can be measured in the tens of thousands of dollars.
287(g), a federal program to identify and deport serious illegal alien offenders, is a costly approach to the problem– this tax increase includes over a million dollars to fund 18 deputies for the first year. Changes to the program by the Obama Administration will make it more difficult to deport arrestees, making 287(g) an even less cost-effective solution.
But there is a better way. The County Commission should adopt an ordinance requiring all businesses, as a condition of receiving or renewing a business license, to enroll in the E-Verify program. E-Verify is a free federal program in which employers can quickly and easily verify the work eligibility of their new hires. Illegal workers are prohibited from working after being confirmed as ineligible and the penalties are stiff for companies that continue to employ illegal workers.
Requiring businesses to enroll in E-Verify would cost the county nothing and would essentially eliminate the primary reason that illegal immigrants come to Gwinnett in the first place—jobs.
The Commission must adopt an ordinance immediately with implementation during the first quarter of 2010. The requirement should apply to all new applications thereafter and license renewals for 2011.
- Resolve to Adopt a Mathematically Correct Millage Rate
I have explained how the Bannister Commission’s decisions to adopt deficient tax rates since 2005 contributed to the current budget crisis. Opponents of the current tax hike proposal have expressed a similar concern– that a tax increase, once in place, will never go away. The concern is a legitimate one; however, there is a remedy.
The Commission should resolve to follow the procedure for calculating the rate that has been taught by the state Department of Revenue for decades. A mathematically-correct rate takes no more and no less from property owners than is required to fund the budget.
If the politicians hold down the cost of government and/or increase non-property tax revenues, the tax rate decreases simply as an operation of the math. Also, if assessed values increase across the county, a correct millage rate returns the benefit of a growing tax base to the property owner in the form of a lower tax rate.
By resolving to adopt a mathematically correct millage rate in 2010, the Commission can ensure that, as staff and the Engage Gwinnett committee cut costs and maximize non-tax revenues, the taxpayer receives the benefit.
There are numerous benefits of this practice. You can learn how the millage rate is supposed to be calculated here.
Time to Act
As I noted earlier, the Commission will pass this tax increase. It is up to you and me to demand that the Commissioners recognize a new era of citizen involvement and greater accountability.
They screwed things up… now we are going to clean up the mess. After all, we will be paying for the cleanup.
Contact the Commission via the contact form here. You are welcome to express your displeasure with the tax increase; however, if you accept my compromise proposal (published at SaveGwinnett.com), be sure to preface your comments with:
“I support `the SaveGwinnett Plan`” or “I support Bob Griggs’ proposal.”
The Commissioners have this proposal in hand– it is up to you to give it value. You do that by contacting them today.
[Each of these proposals are described elsewhere in greater detail. If you want to know more about a particular topic, contact me.]