In addition to serving as a physician and Commerce mayor, Clark Hill is taking on the role of the city’s public relations leader.
Hill previewed a “State of the City” presentation at the city council’s “work session” meeting Monday night. It’s a presentation he was scheduled to make to the Commerce Area Business Association today (Wednesday), to the Commerce Kiwanis Club on Jan. 24 and at a town hall meeting tentatively planned for mid-February.
The presentation, Hill said, reviews “where we’ve come from, what got us here, what the obstacles are and what the opportunities are.”
With slides showing charts, photos and bullet points, Hill started with the “potential” he feels the city possesses, moved on to the formidable challenges, outlined his envisioned “corrections” to meet the challenges, discussed staffing levels and changes already made, identified possible risks in the future, set forth goals for the upcoming year and talked about progress toward meeting those goals.
He said his objective with the presentation is to “get the word out” so citizens understand the challenges the city council faced, “how we worked on it and why we had to do what we did.” He said the presentation would be e-mailed to all council members and asked them to come up with questions and suggestions to be taken up during the retreat.
The message produced by Hill after one year as mayor is largely optimistic, starting with his view of the city’s potential.
“We are poised for great things to happen. Even with the challenges with our reserves, we are still very strongly positioned in reserves,” he declared.
In addition, Hill noted that there are “lots of lookers” and “some good prospects” looking at the Commerce 85 Business Park, pointed out that the city has excess capacity in all of its utilities, and that its reduced housing inventory suggests building should resume on the east side of the county.
The challenges, he noted, are largely financial. Hill reminded the city of just how much revenue has declined over recent years, noted the loss of five department heads to retirement, pointed out debt issues, and discussed the declining tax digest (down $11.5 million since 2009) and local option sales tax revenue (to be down $240,000 in 2012 and beyond over 2011).
From 2008, Hill said, city revenue has declined by $6.5 million, a healthy chunk of it due to lower natural gas sales.
“Natural gas was our revenue source,” Hill reminded. “We used to transfer about $900,000 a year into the General Fund. Last year we transferred $211,000.”
General Fund revenue, he said, is $700,000 lower in this budget than it was in 2008.
One of the ways the city made up some of that lost revenue was a 1.78-mill tax hike last year. Even with that, Hill noted, ad valorem taxes make up just 10 percent of the budget.
Pointing to a revenue pie chart slide, Hill observed, “The only way that piece of pie can shrink over time is for these others (sources of revenue) to enlarge.”
Since 2008, Hill said, city expenses “outpaced” revenue – until 2012, when the city posted a $132,000 “profit,” which he added “is not a lot, but we’re heading in the right direction.”
As for reserves, the mayor said the General Fund remains in good shape, as does the water and sewerage fund. The challenges are in the electric and gas funds.
So, how does the mayor see the city reversing things?
One answer, he said, is to market its utilities. He pointed out that the former original Tanger Outlet development converted from propane gas to the city’s natural gas system, and that the gas department is marketing to poultry producers.
“What we need is an industry to come in and replace LP,” Hill said.
As for personnel, Hill noted that the city has cut staff from 100 employees in 2009 to 87 at present. In addition, it replaced its retired department heads, he said, with lower-cost employees. He also observed that for the past fiscal year the city had “positive fund balances” in all funds except the natural gas fund.
“Are we where we need to be? No,” he said. “But we’re moving in the right direction.”
There are risks, Hill warned. They include a low real estate inventory that could inhibit growth, excess utility capacity that needs to be utilized, federal regulations affecting the cost of producing of electricity in coal plants owned by the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, of which the city is a member, the city’s “aging fleet” of vehicles due to economic constraints in implementing its capital improvement plans.
Goals for the future, the mayor said, include building reserves, funding maintenance and capital improvements, maintaining organizational efficiency, the marketing of natural gas and electricity, hiring a community improvement director to help market the city and to promote the redevelopment of commercial property in town. In addition, Hill envisions implementing curbside recycling and thinks it will produce revenue, which he intends to tie to funding recreation. He said the city will also work harder to recruit business and industry and will seek partnerships with businesses and other entities to help support city programs, particularly in recreation.
Progress Toward Goals
Moving toward implementing those goals, Hill said the city is focusing on code enforcement, improvement of the entryways to the city, community policing and marketing its enterprise zone.
The redevelopment of vacant properties — he cited the old Walmart shopping center, the old Bi Lo shopping center, the former QRM building and the former Oxford building as examples of possible projects that could be redeveloped once the city gains “Opportunity Zone” status from the Department of Community Affairs. That will provide for significant income tax credits. The city can also waive all or part of property taxes for such projects to spur development.
Poised For Growth
“The city of Commerce is much more financially stable than we were just a year ago,” Hill concluded. “The organizational leadership is in place. We are poised for growth from a utility standpoint. ...Commerce has nothing but good things to happen to us. We are ready to go and I really think we can emerge as a leader in Northeast Georgia if we work hard at it.”