You can help Engage Gwinnett make right choices

Gwinnett Daily Post

By Engage Gwinnett Citizens Committee Co-chairs Bill McCargo, President of the Atlanta Education Fund, and Mike Levengood, a partner with the law firm of McKenna Long and Aldridge LLP

Engage Gwinnett is a citizen led volunteer committee asked to study county government and make recommendations to the Board of Commissioners about desired services, service levels, and how to pay for those services in the future.

As the Engage Gwinnett Citizens Committee reaches the mid-process benchmark, we thought it important to update the community about where we are, what we have learned, and what we would like our fellow taxpayers to weigh in on. The Engage Gwinnett process began with the public at a meeting in September, we are reaching out to the public again mid-way through the process, and we will end with the public at a community meeting in April in advance of making our final recommendations to the Board of Commissioners.

The Engage Gwinnett committee has met nine times in bi-weekly meetings to learn what services the county currently provides, at what level they provide them, and what some of those services cost. The committee divided into four work groups to study the areas of law enforcement and judiciary, development and infrastructure, community services, and fire and emergency services. The goal of these efforts has been to frame county budget issues through education, consider the alternatives to the status quo as well as the impacts and unintended consequences of those alternatives, and then to suggest choices.

To date, some of our overarching observations are that because of projected changes in Gwinnett County’s demographics and growth, we are likely to see government costs rise in the future even if services are held at the same level. Some examples include senior services, transportation, health and human services, and public safety. It has become evident that we need to aggressively attract well-paying jobs to support a stronger tax base to continue our enviable quality of life.

We better understand now the proactive steps that were taken in prior years to implement operating budget reductions of approximately nine percent across the board. We understand that the staff has recommended delaying construction of certain capital (building) SPLOST projects that once completed are expected to increase the county’s operating budget. (By law, SPLOST revenue cannot fund operational costs.) This seems prudent; however, to enable citizens in the most recently developed areas of Gwinnett to receive a similar level of county services as their neighbors in other areas of the county, we will be looking at whether there are options for the local communities to contribute to the operations in return for completing capital projects more quickly that are fair and reasonable.

Another observation is that Gwinnett County’s budget suffers from policies set by the state. An example is that Gwinnett’s public health services are reimbursed under a formula that assumes Gwinnett’s population has not increased since the 1970s. State-determined county court fees often do not cover county costs but cannot be raised without changes to state law. We are looking into service areas where possible efficiencies could be found and money saved through an investment in new technologies and practices, and improve greater staff coordination or changes.

At our regularly scheduled committee meeting on February 17, we will be going deeper into revenues and revenue options. The work groups will be deliberating what service costs may be covered or offset by fees to promote good stewardship of our parks and libraries and what revenue options we have in addition to property tax. Is an additional sales tax a viable option for raising additional revenue in the future or even rolling back property tax?

As we continue to discuss potential budget recommendations, we are mindful that changes in service levels in some areas can cause costs to increase in other areas. For example, reductions in budget cuts may cause a reduction in Fire and EMS response times that in turn can cause homeowner and business insurance levels to rise. Many of the challenges we face are about choices – very difficult choices.

The Engage Gwinnett committee members strongly encourage the public to attend and participate in one of four upcoming community meetings to learn about our work and to share their thoughts about what else we should recommend. Each meeting will begin with an overview of the process and then attendees will have the opportunity to meet in small groups to provide input. The four meetings will be held at various times and in different locations throughout the county to encourage participation:

  • Saturday, Feb. 20, 9 a.m. – 11 a.m. at 12Stone Church near Lawrenceville (State Route 20 campus)
  • Monday, Feb. 22, 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. at Grace Fellowship Church in Snellville

Details on future meetings, video of past meetings, and all past presentation materials can be found here.

To view the original article, please click here.

County ‘engages’ community in prioritizing services
Initiative lets Gwinnett County, Ga. stakeholders recommend what to fund and how

National Association of Counties – NACo

By Charles Taylor

Gwinnett County, Ga. is about halfway through a six-month effort to look at the community’s needs for current and future government services — and how to pay for them over the next five years. It’s called Engage Gwinnett, and for the state’s second most populous county — with 800,000 residents — it couldn’t come at a better time.

2009 was a rollercoaster of a year for Gwinnett County’s Board of Commissioners. Experiencing falling revenues from the economic downturn, the fiscally conservative County Board last spring found itself in the unpopular position of proposing a tax hike to maintain county services — after decades of rapid growth. It would have raised property taxes 25 percent to 30 percent. After a citizen revolt, the board instead approved more than $225 million in budget cuts over the next five years to keep the budget balanced. Later in the year, the board okayed a 21 percent property tax increase, to help restore some services and programs.

“To emerge from this challenge successfully, which I’m confident we will, we need informed recommendations from people throughout our community,” said Charles E. Bannister, chairman of Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners. “As elected officials, we need to hear from informed citizens about what services and service levels they want the county to provide and how they think we should pay for those services.”

Engage Gwinnett kicked off with a public meeting last Sept. 9 and recently conducted its seventh full committee session Jan. 6. A 42-member citizens committee, including an alternate for each member, convenes every two weeks in meetings that are open to the public.

Some members were appointed by the County Board or the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, a partner in the effort. Others volunteered to be involved. In all, they represent a wide range of community stakeholders, including senior citizens, education, health care, nonprofits, minorities and faith-based organizations. The effort receives financial support from the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.

Mike Levengood, a local attorney and Chamber board member, serves as one of Engage Gwinnett’s co-chairs. “If successful, we hope this will serve as a model for how a community can inform and build consensus among its citizens regarding this important governance issue,” he said.

At meetings, committee members hear from elected officials, county staff and local residents and participate in group discussions. Smaller work groups have been formed to study specific service areas: community services, fire and emergency services, development and infrastructure, and law enforcement and judiciary.

Engage Gwinnett member Dave McMullen owns a small advertising agency. He said as an entrepreneur, resident, parent of kids in the county’s school and consumer of park services, he brings “multiple perspectives” to the process.
He said the county’s belt-tightening is a mirror of the economy in the Atlanta metropolitan area, of which Gwinnett is a part.

“As a marketing company, we’ve had customers — long-time current customers — just say that they have to reduce their budget. Their revenue is down. And as their budgets go down, we also have to rethink what services we provide, the makeup of our company and that kind of thing,” McMullen said.
At the first of Engage Gwinnett’s two January meetings (archived video online at the Engage Gwinnett Web site), Levengood cautioned against two possible pitfalls in the members’ deliberations.

“First, there’s a concern that we will make a mistake in our recommendation, because we simply don’t understand enough about how government works,” he said. “And second, there’s a concern that we will make a recommendation that our fellow citizens simply won’t support.”

He reassured them that all recommendations would be thoroughly vetted and reviewed by relevant county agency directors. And what might those suggestions include?

During the Jan. 6 meeting, Norwood Davis, spokesperson for the community services work group, said they’ve floated ideas concerning public libraries. These include increasing volunteer hours, staggering branch operating hours and privatizing the library system.

For parks and recreation, Davis said the committee is considering ideas such as parking fees, user fees and outsourcing different aspects of park operation or maintenance.

At the Dec. 17 meeting, the police and courts work group heard from  the district attorney, who suggested there might be ways to lower costs in the indigent defense system.

The online meeting report states that the current system leads to higher costs because court-appointed lawyers are paid by the hour; so they have an incentive to increase their billable hours. The group discussed whether moving to a public defender system might lower costs.

To keep the community informed, has links to video summaries and full videos of the meetings, as well as comprehensive written meeting reports in PDF format. It also has the social networking bases covered, with a Facebook account and Twitter feed.

McMullen says he appreciates the openness of the process. “Whether this produces any huge results or makes a big impact, I really appreciate the inclusiveness of it. The openness that our county leaders have decided to take...I think is really important.”

The process will open to the broader public next month with a series of meetings at which some tentative recommendations will be shared. The committee is scheduled make recommendations to the County Board this spring on desired services, service levels and revenues.

To view the original article, click here.