Larger investments in public works and economic/downtown development are fueling a potential 16% increase in the City of Winder’s General Fund budget for fiscal year 2022, and the city council appears poised to approve an increased millage rate and higher user fees to balance the budget and help fund its priorities.

The council plans to hold its third scheduled budget work session, with just over two weeks left in the current fiscal year, at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 17, at the city’s utilities complex at 138 Sweetwater Trail, off Miles Patrick Road, to discuss what could be any final adjustments prior to the required public hearing on and adoption of the budget by the end of this month. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

Thursday’s meeting will come one week after the council met for over two hours June 10 to hear city administrator Mandi Cody present the latest proposed budget. If the budget were approved as it was presented last week, the city would increase its General Fund expenditures by $3.1 million and have a $5.77 million deficit without any adjustments, according to figures presented by Cody.

The proposed spending plan includes more money toward public works projects — particularly more money toward road paving and stormwater infrastructure — and an additional $1 million for the downtown development authority, including more development/redevelopment of city-owned properties, expanding stormwater master-planning, infrastructure and streetscape improvements, and implementation of the work program being identified by a new downtown master plan in the works. The city also plans to begin implementing recommendations that will stem from a Rose Hill Cemetery master plan that is under development. Spending in the police department would also be increased in an effort by the city to address recruitment and retention issues.

Other than reducing expenditures, Cody said the budget could be balanced through a combination of raising user and impact fees across the various city services, transitioning some direct-benefit services to user fees rather than the millage rate, and raising the millage rate itself. She recommended that the council set all user fees at 100% cost-recovery levels, including capital purchases. The new fees would be adopted along with the budget.

According to Cody's presentation, the city would need to increase its current millage rate from 4 to 14.7 mills to fully fund the council's priorities that were identified at its annual strategic planning retreat in February, though she said the "true" increase would be less because although the city has been charging residents 4 mills, residents have actually been “living off of” 14.54 mills.

The increased millage rate, which would require three public hearings in order to implement, would mean a $1,070 tax/service increase for a single-family home valued at $250,000, according to the figures presented. With proposed stormwater and sanitation fee rates, the impact would be $1,113, or just under $93 a month. Cody said she anticipates the council will ultimately approve a budget with an expected millage rate but won't hold the public hearings on and vote to adopt the rate until the county tax commissioner certifies the tax digest, likely in September. 

The budget, as currently proposed, does not include contributions to or decreases from the city reserves, which Cody said currently are $5.62 million below recommended levels. She noted that the proposed budget also does not even address several other issues that the city will continue to grapple with into next fiscal year and beyond — including, among several others, the need for more long-term planning for capital and debt-intensive projects like the joint water reservoir with the City of Auburn, greater investments in infrastructure, and fee increases to handle continued population growth and annexations.

The council will likely dissect the proposed budget much further this week, but there did not appear to be any widespread consensus last week on what expenditures, if any, to lower.

“Anything we take out, we’re just kicking the can down the road on it,” councilman Chris Akins said.

That’s especially true of road projects in the city, said Mayor David Maynard.

The city would continue to receive sales-tax funding for various projects through the 1-cent SPLOST if voters countywide approve the extension this November. And while the city has previously lobbied for a separate 1-cent TSPLOST to fund road and transportation projects through sales tax proceeds, Maynard said other municipal leaders have been hesitant to get behind a referendum this year and that the county is not likely to support placing two 1-cent sales tax referendums on the November ballot — with the thought being, he said, that the chances of the SPLOST extension could be jeopardized.

“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t fund roads,” Maynard said.

The city is projected to receive more than $5.6 million in federal stimulus money through the American Rescue Plan, which city officials have suggested could be applied toward a major stormwater infrastructure project that will address flooding issues at the Center Street underpass and carries an estimated price tag between $5-6 million. Cody said there is the potential that the city could receive additional federal dollars through transportation-centered legislation currently being discussed in Congress, though it’s unclear how much if any Georgia’s 10th Congressional District would receive if U.S. Rep. Jody Hice does not make any funding requests for the district.

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