Well over 500 business and community leaders filled the Gwinnett Center's Tommy Hughes Ballroom to hear the county's new Board of Commission Chairman, Charlotte Nash offer her first State of the County address.
The annual event, which usually take place in January, was delayed until a special election this past March was held to decide on a new county chairman. Newly elected Nash replaced Charles Bannister who resigned last fall in the midst of a grand jury probe over county land deals.
Nash, a former County Administrator, took over the top spot during a failing economy that has forced the county to look for every means to cut expenses and reduce spending. She also came along when the public's trust was at an all time low after the commission was rocked with additional allegations last fall when Dist. 4 Kevin Kenerly was formerly indicted for questionable land deals and was forced to resign.
"I know that some have lost their trust in the Board of Commissioners over the past few years," Nash said. "My goal, and a goal shared by every commissioner on this Board, is to retain that trust."
She outlined several ways the board planned to accomplish its goal:
1. Stronger Ethics Ordiance: Revision of the Ethics Ordianance which the board hopes to have in place within 90 days.
2. Revised Land Acquistion Process: The board is looking into securing a way for a tougher process for future land acquistions. In the interium all land acquistion activity, except for right-of-way for current projects, has been stopped. A new recommended process for acquistions is expected to be adopted within the next several months.
3. Communication: The new commissioner said she and the board are committed to making county government "as transparent as possible" through several means.
- Post business and news on the county's website
- Continue using e-mail to send out news and alerts to subscribers
- And seeking additional ways to provide information and getting feedback from the citizens
Also top on the list, Nash said, was the county's financial issues.
"The most immediate and pressing challenges this organization faces are financial," she said. "County operations are primarily funded through property taxes, which have been a stable and reliable source of revenue for decades."
But over the past few years Gwinnett's real estate values have declined sharply. The result is a 9.2 percent drop in property tax revenue since 2009. The county projects another drop of nearly 9 percent for this year. That translates to a loss of more than $70 million in tax revenues.
"Forecasts for 2012 through 2014 indicated that the picture is no better going forward. The smart approach is to take steps now to prepare for future budget years ...," she said.
Those steps include an examination of the employee benefits package of the county's nearly 4,600 work force and asking for public input on services that may be reduced or cut.
"I think it's important to remind everyone that Gwinnett County has overcome hard times like these before," said Nash. "We worked through those tough times and moved on to achieve great success."
Nash offered to take questions at the end of her speech, but received no response from the audience. She did receive, however, an appreciative audience who stood at the end of her speech.
"I really appreeciated the good will and good faith towards making the county a better place," said Berkeley Lake Mayor Lois Salter after hearing Nash speak. "I thought it was brave of her to solicit questions."
On hand were the four board members of the Gwinnett County Commission, Shirley Lassiter, Dist. 1, Lynette Howard, Dist. 2, Mike Boudeau, Dist. 3 and John Heard Dist. 4.