HomeFirst Gwinnett preparing to open county’s only shelter for homeless, housing insecure residents
After nearly three years of talking about opening a homeless shelter, Homefirst Gwinnett is just about to cross the finish line.
Officials with the group, which was established in summer 2018 and is part of the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Gwinnett County wing, said they anticipate opening their shelter in Norcross sometime this summer. It will be the only homeless shelter in Gwinnett County once its doors open.
“It feels tremendous,” HomeFirst Gwinnett Director Matt Elder said. “This has been a long time coming. We were ready to get everything going last March or April and then COVID hit and changed everything so dramatically.
“With the way our shelter is set up to have the three bedrooms and common areas, COVID made it far too difficult to try and make that work.”
An exact opening date for the shelter — whose location is not being publicized by HomeFirst Gwinnett in order to protect the privacy of the people it will help — has not been set yet. Once it does open, however, it will be able to help up to 20 residents at a time.
That includes both mothers with their children as well as single women.
“They can stay up to 90 total days,” Elder said. “They’ll have full wrap-around case management services like mental health and substance abuse. We have a clinic run by Good Samaritan Health Clinic (so) they’ll have access to affordable healthcare and then we’ll bring in other partners for support services in addition to that.”
HomeFirst Gwinnett Norcross Assessment Center Director Brandee Thomas said the goal for the shelter is provide some stability for people facing homelessness while they try to get back on their feet.
“Our goal is to be able to, one, provide a home-like environment for the residents that we are able to serve and to give people a strong foundation for the next step,” she said.
There is a need for housing assistance in Gwinnett County. Elder said HomeFirst Gwinnett’s Norcross Assessment Center opened in March 2020 and has helped more than 10,000 people since then with assistance such as eviction protection, housing assistance with help from community partners or other services, such as health services.
“It’s a massive step forward for not just us, but our community,” Elder said. “We’ve been incredibly blessed to be supported by the Board of Commissioners, especially with Chairwoman (Charlotte) Nash and now with Chairwoman (Nicole Love) Hendrickson and all of the commissioners, with funding and programatic support and by the community as a whole.
“Our nonprofit partners have been simply tremendous in terms of being a part of the solution and wanting to really rally around the idea that we can being to develop a new comprehensive approach to ending homelessness here in Gwinnett County.”
Elder and Thomas said the traditional stereotype of who is homeless does not match the reality of homelessness. They said the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, helped demonstrate that by causing people who previously would not have fit the stereotype of a person facing housing instability but who fell on hard times as the pandemic took its toll on the economy.
Elder said the pandemic’s impact on the economy was a major reason why HomeFirst Gwinnett has helped as many people as it has since March 2020.
“We’ve seen a growth in the overall homeless population with regard to people who are in need of emergency housing solutions and shelter,” Elder said.
Thomas said many calls that came into the assessment center were from people who did not have previous experience dealing with homelessness.
“From our end, we’ve received lots of calls from individuals, or emails or applications, for individuals who are seeking assistance that have said, ‘I’ve never been homeless before, I’ve never been in situation like this before, I’ve always been the person other people come to,’” she said. “So, the pandemic, unfortunately, is a great equalizer.
“Whether you have multiple college degrees or you are an entry level worker, it impacted everyone across the board throughout Gwinnett County.”
This won’t be the only shelter HomeFirst Gwinnett plans to operate, however. It’s long-range vision is to expand and eventually offer services in other parts of the county.
“This is step one for us,” Elder said. “We believe this boutique kind of model of being able to really design shelter services around what is the need on the ground locally is the way to move forward.
“And, with the scale and the size of Gwinnett County, being able to put four or five of these locations spread out geographically around the county can help us not only meet the overall need of the community, but also zero in and target what the needs are in Lawrenceville versus in Norcross, or Buford, or Duluth.
“We’re going to try to focus on the smaller-scale, more boutique style because we can have a lot more impact with that and really begin go target its focus and its service around what is the direct need on the ground in that community.”
HomeFirst Gwinnett is in the process of hiring five resident assistant positions for people who will work in the shelter. Thomas said anyone interested in applying for one of those jobs can do so at the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s website, www.unitedwayatlanta.org.
Local leaders honor life of Charles Hale 110 years after he was lynched on the Lawrenceville Square
Inger Williams first heard about the lynching of Charles Hale from her father years ago. But the significance of what happened didn’t fully hit her until she was older.
For Williams, the story of what happened to Hale — who was killed April 8, 1911 — is a personal connection to an issue that persisted in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries: the lynchings of Black people by groups of white people.
In Williams’ case, her father was the brother of Willie Williams, who was Hale’s wife.
In other words, Inger Williams is the niece of a lynching victim. It’s something she had to grapple with as she grew older.
“At the time, it was just history because I didn’t get to know him because I wasn’t even born,” said Williams, who lives in Atlanta.
Hale’s life, as well as his lynching, was remembered by local government and community leaders on Saturday — the Juneteenth national holiday — with a soil collecting ceremony at the corner of the Lawrenceville Square where he was lynched.
The Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition partnered with several groups, as well as the Gwinnett County and city of Lawrenceville governments to host the ceremony. Soil was collected from the edge of the square into two jars that will be included in the Equal Justice Initiatives museum, which honors the lives of Black people who were killed in lynchings.
“It’s the most documented and most recent lynching that occurred in Gwinnett,” Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition member Steve Babb said. “There are others, but you know, it’s very well documented, partly because of that awful photograph (that is held in the Georgia Archives collection) that was made into a post card and widely distributed, and that is readily available.”
Equal Justice Initiative staff attorney Ashley Adams said the soil collected at the ceremony will help ensure Hale’s story does not go untold in the future. More than 4,400 people were the victims of lynchings in the southeastern U.S. between the 1870’s and the 1950s, Adams said.
“What we want people to realize, and to learn is that, across the entire history of this nation and the 400 years that Black people have been here, our lives have been cut short by white supremacy and our freedoms have been taken by white supremacy,” she said. “We want people to learn about people like Charles Hale, whose life was cut short by white supremacy.”
Hale was arrested in early April 1911 on an accusation that he had assaulted a white woman. A mob gathered on the night of his death, and stormed the county jail, holding the sheriff and deputies at gun point before taking Hale from the jail.
The mob then tied a noose around Hale’s neck and hung him from a pole nearby, at the corner of what is now Pike and Perry Streets on the square. News reports from the time indicate his body was also shot as it hung from the light pole. It was left hanging from the pole into the next day, and the photo that the Georgia Archives has of a large all-white crowd gathered around his body was taken the day after the lynching.
“We do not want to forget the racist and violent past,” Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition’s Ray Harvin said. “Instead, we want to open up that history, study it and learn about the negative effect it had on entire neighborhoods of mostly Black individuals, and sometimes others that supported the cause.
“Those lynchings resulted in voter suppression, voter intimidation and violence against citizens.”
For Williams, she was initially hesitant about attending the ceremony until organizers explained what they were trying to do. After it concluded, she said the ceremony brought mixed emotions.
“I’m happy that it’s at least acknowledged, sad that it even had to happen but hopeful that we move forward from here,” Williams said.
Lawrenceville Mayor David Still said the ceremony was important for the city to be involved in as it comes to terms with its history.
In addition to 2021 marking the 110th anniversary of Hale’s death, it is also the 200th anniversary of Lawrenceville’s formal establishment as a municipality. So the city’s history is on the mind of its leaders this year. Still pointed out that city leaders issues a proclamation denouncing racial discrimination, and racial injustice, in July 2020.
“The Lawrenceville of today is very different from the Lawrenceville of 1911,” Still said. “I’m saddened that Mr. Hale and his family, and so many others, never saw the modern day Lawrenceville of 2021 where we can all sit together, shoulder to shoulder here on this square, and remember, acknowledge and educate and memorialize and move forward as a unified community as we build individual relationships of healing.”
There was a significance to the date when the ceremony was held. Babb said the Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition initially wanted to do it in April, closer to the anniversary of Hale’s lynching, but he said county officials suggested doing it on Juneteenth.
Juneteenth marks the anniversary of federal troops arriving in Texas and proclaiming on June 19, 1865, that slaves had been freed two years earlier by the Emancipation Proclamation. It is considered the official end of slavery in the U.S., as well as the Black Independence Day.
The ceremony remembering Hale came two days after President Joe Biden signed into law an act that made Juneteenth a federal holiday.
“As we acknowledge the horrors of our past, I also want to celebrate the journey onward, and the fight of all those who led us to come so far,” Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson said as she presented a Juneteenth proclamation to the United Ebony Society of Gwinnett.
But, Hendrickson also said Hale’s death brought the history of lynchings in America home to Gwinnett.
“It would be easy to write this off as just an African-American issue, but it’s not,” she said. “Lynchings are an American issue. Lynchings are a Georgia issue, and the fact that one occurred here makes it a Gwinnett issue.”
Attendees were invited to take shuttle buses to a private property where Hale and at least 21 other people were buried in a paupers’ field.
Williams said she is not quite ready to visit Hale’s grave, which is near the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville.
“I’m glad to know (where it is) and, one day if I want to come back, I will. But today won’t be that day because I’m not emotionally ready for that,” she said.
Gwinnett school board OKs fiscal year 2022 budget, tentatively plans to keep 2020 millage rate
Gwinnett County Public Schools’ $2.35 billion fiscal year 2022 got the official seal of approval from the county’s school board on Thursday, and district leaders are poised to make no changes to the school system’s millage rate.
The school board tentatively adopted a 21.6-mill millage rate, with 19.7 mills going to maintenance and operations and another 1.9 mills doing to debt service. The board is now set to vote on final adoption of the millage rate in July.
“It’s a big budget,” board Chairman Everton Blair said. “Thanks for all of the hard work that has gone into it.”
The budget, among other things, includes funding for teachers and other staff to get cost-of-living raises in the upcoming fiscal year. There is also about $15.4 million that is expected to be spent on hiring employees, particularly teachers and school support staff, to handle an expected increase in student enrollment in the 2021-2022 school year.
The district is also planning to make a temporary increase in substitute teacher pay permanent in the new budget.
Although the millage rate will remain the same, that does not necessarily mean homeowners will pay the same in school taxes as they paid last year. County commissioners heard a presentation earlier this week about how the county’s tax digest has grown in the past year.
That growth means that, even with the school system’s millage rate staying the same from 2020, it is possible that homeowners could have to pay more on the school system’s portion of their tax bill.
The school system millage rate is just one factor that determines how much a homeowner owes in property taxes. The county government has its own separate millage rate and residents who live in one of Gwinnett’s 16 cities may have a municipal millage rate to deal with as well.
GCPS appoints principals for three schools
Two Gwinnett County elementary schools have new principals and one other school, the North Metro Academy of Performing Arts, learned it will get to keep its principal as it makes a key transition.
The Gwinnett County Board of Education approved the appointments of Monica Ball as the new principal of Graves Elementary school, Joe Sanfilippo as the new principal at Pharr Elementary School and Rodriguez Johnson as the principal at the North Metro Academy of Performing Arts on Thursday night.
Ball has worked in GCPS since 1994, when she was hired as a third-grade teacher at Cedar Hill Elementary School, a role she served in until 2004. She then served as a third-grade teacher and interrelated resource teacher at Winn Holt Elementary School until 2009; Winn Holt’s assistant principal until 2016; Rosebud Elementary School’s principal until 2020; and a principal on special assignment in GCPS’ Human Resources and Talent Management Office for the past year.
She received a bachelor’s degree in business administration, with a focus in marketing from Clark College, a master’s degree in early childhood education from Brenau University and specialist’s degree in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University.
Sanfilippo has worked in GCPS since 2006 after serving as a teaching assistant and after-care assistant director at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Buffalo, N.Y. from 2002 until 2005.
During his time with GCPS, he served as a 3rd and 5th Grade teacher at Corley Elementary School from 2006 until 2012; an instructional coach at Corley Elementary from 2012 until 2014; assistant principal at Hopkins Elementary School 2014 until 2015; an assistant principal form Graves Elementary School from 2015 until 2016; and an assistant principal again at Hopkins Elementary School from 2016 until Thursday.
He received his bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Medaille College, a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Phoenix Online, a specialist’s degree in educational leadership from Georgia State University and doctoral degree in educational leadership from Georgia State.
Meanwhile, Johnson has been with GCPS since 2006, starting as a special education teacher at Five Forks Middle School from 2006 until 2012; an assistant principal at Simonton Elementary School from 2012 until 2014; and assistant principal at Knight Elementary School from 2014 until 2017
He has actually been the principal at the North Metro Academy of Performing Arts since 2017, but the school is transitioning from a charter school to a Gwinnett County Public Schools elementary theme school that is part of the Norcross cluster, prompting his re-appointment which allows him to continue leading the school during its transition.
Johnson received his bachelor’s degree in history from Tennessee State University, a master’s degree in educational leadership from Ohio State University and a doctoral degree in educational leadership from Clark Atlanta University.
Grocery store Lidl opening new store in Duluth next week
Lidl will open its newest Gwinnett County location in a few days.
The German grocery store chain announced it will open its new 20,000-square-foot location at 2330 Peachtree Industrial Boulevard in Duluth on Wednesday. It will employ 30 people and be the fourth Lidl location in Gwinnett, joining existing stores in Snellville, Lawrenceville and Peachtree Corners.
A ribbon cutting ceremony is set for 7:40 a.m. on Wednesday, with Lidl officials and local leaders gathered to open the store.
There will be special giveaways and offers for the first customers during the grand opening festivities, including gift cards ranging from $5 to $100 for the first 100 customers and a chance to enter a drawing for a $500 Lidl gift card.
Lidl is somewhat similar in concept to another German store chain, Aldi, and has been ranked twice by Food and Wine as being among the Top 10 U.S. Supermarkets, with it ranking ahead of more established American chains such as Trader Joe’s and Costco this year.
Lidl officials also pointed to a University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School study that found the grocer’s prices were as much as 45% less than national grocers that were located near its stores.
Although Lidl’s origins are in Germany, it offers products sourced in the U.S., including hundreds of organic and gluten free products. It also offers specialty items from Europe, however, including hard-to-find cheeses, cured meats and authentic specialty sauces.
Its private label products have received more than 500 awards, including the Sommeliers Choice Awards and the New York International Competition.
The chain also rotates new non-food selections — such as fitness gear small kitchen appliances, toys, outdoor furniture, lawn and garden supplies and tools — every Wednesday.
Lidl also guarantees that flowers sold in its stores are “fresh and beautiful for five days at a minimum.” In the case of roses and lilies, that guarantee goes up to seven days.
As is common at Lidl stores, a fresh bakery will be the first thing customers see when they walk in the store.
Gwinnett school board meeting goes on without disruption, but Critical Race Theory dominates public debate
There were no standoffs between the Gwinnett County Board of Education and parents at the board’s meeting on Thursday, and district officials said they were thankful for that.
Several GCPS police officers and Gwinnett County Sheriff’s deputies were parked in the parking lot at the district’s J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center, where the meeting was held.
Attendees also had to go through a tent with security officials who were checking in people who had signed up to speak during public comment. There were no disruptions during the meeting.
“It was much better (and) incredibly productive relative to the obstruction that occurred at the last board meeting,” school board Chairman Everton Blair said.
The meeting held Thursday night was orderly — a stark contrast to the heated confrontation at last month’s meeting between board members and parents who refused to wear face masks when they were asked to do so.
Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks laid out the expectations for decorum as the meeting got underway.
“Tonight, as you entered this facility, you were provided with a flyer that outlined the expected behavior and decorum of visitors to the meeting,” the superintendent said. “It is unfortunate and disappointing that we have to share this information …
“We cannot and will not let adult misbehavior have a negative impact on the important work that we, as a governing board, are doing for the children of this county.”
Blair attributed the more orderly scene at Thursday’s meeting to “planning, the proactive measures that we took and just stating some of the misconceptions and re-stating them in a manner of truth before the meeting began.”
But, while there were no standoffs, there was debate over Critical Race Theory.
The Critical Race Theory issue, in particular, has been rising as a key issue in education across Georgia and elsewhere in the U.S. Gov. Brian Kemp has publicly come out against the teaching of the theory in Georgia schools and the State Board of Education has condemned it in a resolution as well.
The theory puts forward the idea that minorities — particularly Black people — historically faced systemic racism in the U.S.
“Critical Race Theory holds that the most important thing about you is your race, literally the color of your skin is what defines you,” one opponent of the theory, John Devnew, said during public comment. “It’s not your character, behavior, values, environment, none of that. It’s just your race.”
There were speakers who pushed back against Critical Race Theory opponents, however.
“The Georgia board of Education passed a resolution which stated, with their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of or failures to live up to the authentic founding principals of the United States,” Anyah Jones said.
“How can parents trust the State Board of Education with our children’s education when they attempt to whitewash American history. Slavery is not a deviation, but a true representation of the foundation American was built on. Did they forget about policies such as the three-fifths compromise that were written into the Constitution as a means for incorporating slavery into this country’s founding system?”
But, despite the debate over it, district officials have pointed out the theory is not part of GCPS’ curriculum.
“Even though many people discuss Critical Race Theory on a professional level, in the diversity and inclusion space, it is not taught in the GCPS curriculum,” Board member Tarece Johnson, one of the three Democrats on the board, said.
Board Vice-Chairwoman Karen Watkins added, “CRT is not being taught in our school system, nor is it a policy, nor is it anything that we are broaching today.”
One Gwinnett County teacher, Teandra Storey, said the rumors that the theory is being taught in the county’s schools endangers efforts the district is undertaking in the areas of equity, inclusion and diversity.
“I am here to reassure you that, as a social studies teacher in this county, I have never taught my white students, who I absolutely love, that they are oppressors due to their skin color,” Storey said. “I don’t know an educator in this county that would teach that.
“However, I do know that there are educators that are teaching revisionist history like ‘the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but it was about states rights.’ I do know there are educators who teach students that all slaves were not treated bad.”
A parents group that has formed as pushback over issues such as in-person versus digital learning, the decision to terminate Wilbanks’ contract early and mandating face masks is Gwinnett County Parents for Quality Education.
That group held a press conference before the board meeting It was intended to be a response to a press conference Solicitor General Brian Whiteside held on Monday, but Critical Race Theory was attacked multiple times by speakers.
The group has identified itself as a chapter of No Left Turn in Education, which is itself a group that describes itself on its website as, “A voice to push back on the Leftist agenda sweeping into public education and to underscore the ideals and values that make our country exceptional.”
Speakers at the press conference derided Critical Race Theory as “Marxism” and as being disruptive and divisive.
“When you really get down to what (Critical Race Theory) is all about, it’s really marxist, communist thought with race substituted for class warfare,” Army veteran Paul Gardiner said as he and other military veterans addressed attendees at the press conference. “That’s what it is, plain and simple.”
As the Gwinnett group’s leader, Holly Terei, led a prayer at the press conference, she said, “We stand up for the truth to fight against ungodly policies that are being perpetuated in our nation.”
State Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, announced during the press conference that he plans to file legislation during the 2022 legislative session to bar the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Georgia schools.
“I can promise you I will be a champion to get that legislation passed,” the senator said.
Dixon told the Daily Post after the press conference that he plans to work with the governor’s office on the legislation. The senator is one of Kemp’s floor leaders in the state Senate.
“I’m waiting to see what direction the governor is going in, but essentially, it would ban any teaching of (Critical Race Theory) or any kind of curriculum that relates to that,” Dixon said.
Gwinnett BOC approves tax, fee billing agreements with Peachtree Corners, Dacula and Berkeley Lake — but criticize tax commissioner’s salary supplements
Gwinnett County commissioners approved three more agreements between the county and cities to have Tax Commissioner Tiffany Porter provide tax and fee billing services, but not without offering some criticism of the fact that the agreements call for the cities to pay a supplement to Porter’s salary.
The contracts with Dacula, Peachtree Corners and Berkeley Lake were each approved by 4-1 margins, with county Commissioner Kirkland Carden, who has been an outspoken critic of salary supplements in the contracts, voting against each contract.
But, Commissioner Ben Ku offered some of the harshest criticisms about the salary supplements for Porter.
“I am very disappointed in our tax commissioner,” Ku said. “The way these contracts were handled and negotiated by the tax commissioner was abysmal. The cities are being charged an additional $1 or $2 to augment her $141,098.42 salary, which is almost twice what our chairwoman earns.
“While this may be legal, it is the worst example of a politician profiting off of our taxpayers.”
The contracts call for the cities to pay the county $1.80 per tax parcel to reimburse the county for the service, but Peachtree Corners and Dacula have each agreed to pay an additional $2 per parcel director to Porter to provide the service while Berkeley Lake agreed to pay Porter $1 per parcel.
Porter is expected to earn an additional $34,294 on top of her annual salary as a result.
The proposal to charge the fees to supplement Porter’s salary — which is in addition to the fees that will be charged to the cities to reimburse the county for the use of its resources to handle billing for property taxes and special assessment fees — has proven to be controversial and faced backlash among both Republicans and Democrats.
Porter is the first Democrat to hold Gwinnett’s tax commissioner’s office in at least several decades.
After news first emerged this spring that the salary supplement fee was being proposed, state legislators hastily wrote an amendment to a bill moving through the Georgia General Assembly in the closing days of the 2021 legislative session. That amendment, which Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law, transferred the authority for negotiating the contracts away from the tax commissioner’s office and put it with the Board of Commissioners.
That bill amendment was written in such a way that it only applies to Gwinnett and Fulton counties, but state Rep. Chuck Efstration has said in the past that legislators intend to take a more in-depth look at tackling the issue statewide in 2022 legislative session, after it has had time to fully study the issue on a statewide level.
Carden’s mother, Regina, lost to Porter in the 2020 Democratic Party primary for the tax commissioner’s race. He raised objections to the fact that Porter was allowed to be involved in negotiations between the county and the cities on the contracts.
“I am a little concerned that we’re taking such a discretionary approach to applying the law,” Carden said. “Senate Bill 201 specifically says, ‘Counties, municipalities, you are the parties that are responsible for entering into an agreement.’ It makes no mention of a third party … I understand the backstory to this, but that discretionary approach to the law concerns me.”
Meanwhile, Ku said that he was unhappy about the contracts — he and Carden wanted a breakdown of the fees listed on tax bills but that proposal was rejected — but he went ahead and voted to approve the contracts because the billing services “are what the cities need.”
Peachtree Corners officials previously said they were stuck in a position where Porter had said she would not provide billing services, regardless of what the contract between the county and the cities said, if it did not include the fee that supplemented her salary.
In the past, eight cities contracted with the tax commissioner’s office to handle city tax and special assessment fee billing, but half of those cities chose to look at other options after Porter put forward a contract proposal that included a fee to supplement her salary.
Of the four cities that opted to continue using the county for billing, only Grayson refused to pay the salary supplement and it was therefore omitted from its contract with the county.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux sees infrastructure bills as chance to make ‘generational’ improvements in Gwinnett
The projects included in the infrastructure bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives are just part of many efforts that Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Ga., said are underway to impact infrastructure in Gwinnett County in a big, long-term way.
The Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation, or INVEST, in America Act, which passed out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee late last week, includes funding for several projects in Gwinnett, including a pedestrian bridge in Sugar Hill and transit projects elsewhere in the county. It is pending a vote in the full House, which Bourdeaux said is expected to happen sometime before July 4.
“We’re working very hard on a series of initiatives, trying to leverage the fact that I sit on Transportation and Infrastructure and this is a historic moment where there is a huge interest in infrastructure and the potential to make a one-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure,” Bourdeaux said. “Our community needs to have a seat at the table.”
Some of the big Gwinnett projects in the INVEST in America Act include funding for a pedestrian bridge near Sugar Hill’s E-Center, a new local bus route connecting Gwinnett Place Mall and the Mall of Georgia and a Georgia Park and Ride Lot which would be located on State Route 316 at either Collins Industrial Way or Buford Drive.
A multi-use path connecting McDaniel Farm Park to Satellite Boulevard, with a path along Commerce Avenue; a bus rapid transit service on U.S. Highway 78, between Snellville and Stone Mountain; and vehicle acquisition for bus and paratransit service between Snellville and north DeKalb County are also in the bill.
The last two projects in that list are in the 4th Congressional District, which is represented by U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga.
Between those six projects alone, $27.8 million in infrastructure funding could be coming to Gwinnett.
“These are local projects that we can do right away,” Bourdeaux said.
The local project that could have one of the biggest impacts, at least in the western half of Gwinnett is the Gwinnett Place to Mall of Georgia local bus route.
It would connect two of Gwinnett’s biggest business districts and, since the county’s transit transfer hub is located at Gwinnett Place Mall, provide the Mall of Georgia area with transit connections to Peachtree Corners, Lilburn, Norcross and Lawrenceville.
“It’s supposed to ultimately be a bus rapid transit route, but we’re (moving) one step at a time,” Bourdeaux said.
One potential impact from adding the local bus route funding is to help build out Gwinnett County Transit’s network in the county as well as its connections to neighboring metro communities.
“Right now, we only have the skeleton of a local bus system, and I think everybody recognizes we need to have both much better internal transit options to be able to get around Gwinnett and Forsyth, and also we need to have some of the larger metro area connecting transit in order to be able to get around metro area more effectively,” Bourdeaux said.
Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District Executive Director Joe Allen said he was glad to see the route included in the list of the proposed bill’s projects.
“You’ve got 23% of the Class A office space (in Gwinnett) here in the Gwinnett Place area, and to be able to link that to the Mall of Georgia is a positive,” he said. “And, then that connectivity would be an economic driver for both areas.”
The cumulative transportation projects in Gwinnett that are currently slated to receive federal funding in the INVEST Act, even the Sugar Hill pedestrian bridge, are expected to have a transformative impact on mobility in the county, the congresswoman said. While many of them are transit oriented, she said the Sugar Hill pedestrian bridge would connect to walking trails the city is developing, thereby giving residents the ability to walk around the city while also crossing State Route 20 without fear of getting hit by vehicles.
“Those (projects) are all supporting building out a more robust bus network around and internal to Gwinnett, as well as to build these greenways and bike and pedestrian spaces,” Bourdeaux said.
But, Bourdeaux said there are other infrastructure efforts she has championed which are advancing as well. These do not include specific projects, but are legislative efforts to encourage new types of infrastructure development around the nation.
In addition to the INVEST in America Act, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee also sent the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act, which incorporates Bourdeaux’s Wastewater Infrastructure Modernization Act, to the full House.
“Let’s reinvision our communities, let’s use technology more effectively to manage our water resources,” Bourdeaux. said. “That’s really very simple but could make a huge difference.
“And, then we need to shift to electric vehicles, electric charging and let’s find creative and innovative ways to do that.”
One of those is a proposal to place solar panels in medians along highways. Those panels would transit energy to electric vehicle charging stations where they could be used to power cars. Bourdeaux originally pitched it as the Solar Use Network Act, but it was absorbed into the INVEST in America Act.
She pointed to The Ray in Coweta County, where large numbers of solar panels are installed together in clusters on the side of the road to generate solar power, as an example of how it could work.
“Basically, it goes into the (power) grid and then they pair that though with having these electric vehicle charging stations — which are ideally not free,” Bourdeaux said. “People pay for (the electricity to charge their cars) so it’s not just a big subsidy. This is something where this is public-private partnership.”
Another effort is proposed grants to support water innovation efforts, such as the research that will be done at Gwinnett’s Water Tower water research center in Buford.
“Gwinnett is trying to become the center of excellence around water technology,” Bourdeaux said. “That (bill) is to create grant programs for innovative technology, the use of innovative technology in water.”
The Senate has its own infrastructure bill that it has been working on, and Bourdeaux said the hope is that it will go to conference committee and a single bill will be worked out. She has already tipped off Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of the Georgia projects included as funding priorities in the INVEST Act with the hopes that they will be able to fight for them in the Senate.
“We are working with our senators so they’ve been made aware of those,” Bourdeaux said.
Gwinnett’s growing tax digest may nearly erase need for reserve funds to balance county budget
Gwinnett County commissioners got some news that they likely welcomed on Tuesday: They may not need to dip into the county’s reserves nearly as much as expected to balance the county’s 2021 budget.
The county’s financial service staff told commissioners that Gwinnett’s gross tax digest has been growing. That means property tax revenues could be about $18.4 million higher than anticipated when the 2021 budget was approved in January without commissioners needing to raise the county government’s general fund millage rate, which was set at 6.95 mills in 2020.
“Keeping the same millage rate, we recalculated the tax revenues we expect to receive,” Gwinnett Financial Services Director Buffy Alexzulian said. “So with the new (net) digest estimate of $37 billion, the amount of property tax revenue we estimate we will receive this year, for general fund, goes up to $246.2 million.
“So, this greatly reduces the amount of reserves we will have to use this year.”
Gwinnett commissioners will now have to decide what to set the millage rate at, with adoption currently expected to take place July 20. If property tax increases occur — which can still happen even if the millage rate stays the same if the taxable value has increased — two public hearings on the rate will be held one week prior to the vote on adoption and a third hearing will be held the week of the vote.
If the numbers hold true and commissioners keep the general fund millage rate at the same level it was at in 2020, the county will only have to use about $500,000 from the county reserves to balance the 2021 budget. That is a big drop from $18.9 million that county officials, back in January, thought they’d need to take from reserves to get a balanced budget.
The big reason is a larger tax digest. The final gross tax digest for Gwinnett County for 2020 was nearly $43.26 billion, but that does not factor in any exemptions that would reduce the digest to its net total.
The projected gross total tax digest for Gwinnett for this year is $45.49 billion. Once an estimated $8.42 billion in exemptions is subtracted from that total, the county’s projected net digest will be nearly $37.07 billion.
Gwinnett County Chief Appraiser Stewart Oliver told commissioners another factor that will impact Gwinnett’s property tax collections this year is that there was a low number of property assessment appeals this year. Those assessments determine the taxable value of residential and commercial properties in the county.
“The overall number of appeals is very low, and that’s good becuase we were able to resolve a lot last year,” Oliver said. “In fact, right now, we only have 5,088 appeals whereas this time last year, we had 12,760 appeals.
“This is the least we’ve had (in years). Looking at some other dates, back in 2018, we had 8,370 appeals, so there’s been no time since maybe 2014 or earlier that we’ve so little appeals.”
The county government’s millage rate is only one factor in determining how much residents pay in property taxes. Gwinnett County Public Schools and the county’s individual cities set their own separate millage rate.
Those rates determine how much tax is levied on the taxable value of the residential and commercial properties, which is typically about 40% of the assessed value.
Sleep in Heavenly Peace volunteers build 100 beds in Lawrenceville for children in need
For Buford resident Mike Beverly, the issue of children not having a bed to sleep on is a personal one.
That’s because Beverly, who now helps build beds for children, has walked in their shoes.
“I didn’t have a bed when I was a kid for a couple of years, so it kind of touches home for me,” he said.
Beverly was one of more than 100 volunteers who showed up at First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville this past Saturday for a Bunks Across America event to help build kits for 100 bunk beds for children who don’t have a bed to sleep in. The event is part of a partnership with an organization called Sleep In Heavenly Peace.
“Sleep in Heavenly Peace is an international organization with over 250 chapters,” said Brian Buckwalter, who is the president of the Gwinnett chapter of Sleep in Heavenly Peace. “Each chapter has a region that they serve, so we raise our own funds and all the money that we raise, and all of the beds that we build, they stay within our community.
“So we’re serving Gwinnett County. We touch Hall County, Forsyth County, to Cobb. These 100 beds we’re building … It’s just going to be 100 more kids off the floor in our community.”
The volunteers built head boards and foot boards as well as side boards. They operated as a sort of assembly line, beginning with a group that cut pieces of wood.
The wood was then taken to a next station, where volunteers sanded down the wood. After that, the wood was taken to a wood press station where holes were put in the wood to help with assembly later on. The wood then went off to one of two lines, one to assemble side boards and another to assemble head boards and foot boards.
The wood pieces were then soaked in a varnish and the headboards and footboards — once they dried — were then branded with the Sleep in Heavenly Peace logo.
“It’s a kit that we’ll take to the house, and then we’ll actually build it at the house,” Buckwalter said.
Families who need a bed for their children can visit SHPbeds.org to make a request. Buckwalter said Sleep in Heavenly Peace’s Gwinnett chapter estimates there are about 10,000 kids who do not have a bed to sleep in at night.
“It’s kind of an unknown issue that people don’t realize our neighbors, they have kids that don’t have beds,” Buckwalter said. “For some, a bed is a luxury. If they fall on hard times, or life circumstances get in the way, a bed becomes a luxury, but we all know the benefit of having a good night’s sleep.
“So, you may not realize it, but your neighbor’s child may be sleeping on the floor.”
For some volunteers, Saturday was their first time helping build beds for kids. One of those first-time volunteers was Lilburn resident Andrew Cembor, who enjoyed the experience so much that he said he wants to participate in another building event.
“I love the idea of getting the kids off the floors and giving them some place to sleep,” he said.
One of the major partners that provided volunteers, and financial assistance for this past weekend’s event was David Weekly Homes. The company provided dozens of volunteers and made a $7,500 donation to Sleep in Heavenly Peace to help cover the costs of building materials for the beds.
“We actually, as a company, have multiple cities that work with Sleep in Heavenly Peace,” David Weekley Homes Atlanta Division President Adam Cornett said. “When you have anything to do with children, it definitely resonates with people and it’s one of the charities where we let our teams chose who we work with.
“We take recommendations from our team and a lot of our team has just really identified with this charity because it is helping kids specifically.”
This was the first time that the company’s Atlanta division partnered with Sleep in Heavenly Peace for a bed build.
David Weekley Homes’ Atlanta CARE Team Leader John McNeill added that the company’s local employees wanted to work with Sleep in Heavenly Peace on a build last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled those plans.
“It was such a worthy cause that we didn’t want to let it pass the next tie we could do it,” McNeill said.
David Weekley Homes Purchasing Manager Chris Nies said the company invited all of its team members to participate in the event. This was his first time volunteering at a Sleep in Heavenly Peace event.
Nies said the aspect of building bunk beds was something that was kind of in the company’s wheelhouse so to speak.
“We’re homebuilders so construction kind of comes naturally to us,” he said.
Additional volunteers were provided by First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville and Rising Church, which Buckwalter and Beverly are members of.
This was Beverly’s second bed build, and he said the beds will have a major impact on the kids who receive them.
“It will be a huge difference because they’ll get a better night’s sleep, they’ll do better in school (and) probably be better behaved, and just be able to focus more and help them more down the road,” he said.