Hundreds of Gwinnett Residents Protest Proposed Tax Hike

Close to 300 Gwinnett County residents gathered at Suwanee Town Center Park on Monday evening to increase pressure on the County Commission to balance its budget without raising property taxes.

The rally, sponsored by FreedomWorks and Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, featured an array of state and local officials, including state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, Rep. Melvin Everson (R-Snellville) and Secretary of State Karen Handel.

“Real Republicans cut spending at all levels,” said County Commissioner Mike Beaudreau, who has already spoken out against the proposal.

Beaudreau encouraged the crowd to go home and study their tax bills and examine all levels of tax increases from all levels of government.

Adopting a theme raised by other state officials and the three mayors who spoke at the rally, Oxendine said government needs to understand that families and businesses are struggling. He said taxpayers understand cutting services is difficult. He said his office has 20 percent fewer employees than it did 14 years ago.

“Smaller government means we all have to give something up,” he said.

Commission Chairman Charles Bannister told the crowd of his 34-year history in government as a conservative.

Among the crowd of predominantly Suwanee residents, Fred and Melissa Murphy of Lawrenceville said they came because they were alarmed at the size of the proposed rate hike.

The county plans to balance its 2009 budget with a 25 percent to 30 percent hike in its property tax rate.

“At what point do they raise taxes to where we have to move?” Fred Murphy asked. “At the same time, taxpayers from elsewhere won’t want to move here if the rate hits a certain point.”

County commissioners are expected to vote on the mill increase Tuesday following the third public hearing on the matter scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville.

At a news conference Thursday, Bannister said he would vote to postpone the rate increase and ask county agencies to come up with more cuts in the budget.

Beaudreau, who cast the only vote against the $1.7 billion budget when it was passed in March, says he likewise favors more cuts.

Bannister’s announcement came in the wake of strong protests at two public hearings held May 26 that drew about 400 people.

Complicating matters for the county is a state-mandated service agreement that will ultimately determine how much city residents can be assessed in county property taxes. The deadline for that agreement was March 1, but county and municipal leaders have not been able to hammer out a deal. Both sides are now under court order to continue mediation after talks broke off in mid-May.

Without an agreement, county officials cannot know precisely how much revenue to expect from about 20 percent of the population who live in one of Gwinnett’s 15 cities.

Mayors Rex Millsaps of Lawrenceville and Diana Preston of Lilburn met informally with Bannister on Monday to review the points of contention and see if a pact could be crafted. Millsaps said he was encouraged by the meeting and felt negotiations were back on track.

A third round of formal mediation is scheduled to resume at the beginning of next week.