The Winder City Council on Tuesday, July 20, approved a fiscal year 2022 budget that is anticipated to roughly double the city’s millage rate. But discussions among the split six-member body and city officials are likely to continue as the council readies for three state-required hearings on the proposed tax increase beginning next week.

Following a brief discussion Tuesday and a fresh round of criticism from a handful of city residents in attendance, the council voted 4-2 in favor of a budget — with council members Jimmy Terrell and Holly Sheats in opposition — that projects $64.5 million in revenues and $84 million in expenses, with the difference primarily due to capital utility projects that will need to be financed. The budget includes an $18 million General Fund, which includes only $12.9 million in revenues but will be balanced primarily with a $4.5 million transfer from the city’s water and wastewater utility fund.

The approved budget is projected to require a millage rate increase from 3 to 6 mills to fully fund, though half a mill of that increase would stem from the city’s plan to remove the $50-per-parcel streetlight assessment from tax bills and absorb that service into the General Fund, or the regular millage rate.

The proposed increase triggers three public hearings before an adoption of the millage rate. Those meetings will be held July 29, Aug. 2 and Aug. 3, at 6 p.m. each evening at the Winder Community Center, 113 East Athens St. A vote by the council is slated to be held on Aug. 3 following the final public hearing.

The proposed increase is projected to raise taxes by $210 over the year on a home with a fair-market value of $175,000 and $750 on a home valued at $250,000, according to the city’s public notice on the millage rate hearings. If the millage-rate increase is not approved, the council would have to go back and make a series of amendments to the approved budget.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s council meeting, residents — along with the council members in opposition — again hammered the city over what they viewed as a rushed process in voting on the budget and one that lacked transparency. Resident Amber Eskew said a four-page letter she sent to council members and city officials with questions about the budget July 9 went unanswered. And Yvonne Greenway, a Winder resident and former employee of the city’s planning department, said the city should not be approving a budget before the hearings on the millage rate are held.

“It’s irresponsible and it’s unethical,” Greenway said. “It may be legally correct, but it’s just not right. To me, it tells the citizens that (the city doesn’t) care what they think and that you’re going to do what you want to.”

Terrell echoed several of the residents’ points, bemoaning the fact that the council had not held any additional meetings or discussions between the July 6 public hearing on the budget and Tuesday’s vote. That public hearing followed two lengthy discussions at separate meetings last month that resulted in no council consensus over a much larger proposed millage increase and a July 1 work session less than 24 hours after the proposed budget with the increase to 6 mills was posted publicly to the city's website.

“I’m not comfortable with our preparation of this budget,” Terrell said.

But councilman Chris Akins — who was joined by council members Sonny Morris, Kobi Kilgore and Travis Singley in support of the budget — pushed back on the criticisms over the city’s transparency surrounding the budget. Akins has been the most vocally supportive member on the council for fully funding the city’s goals established over the past few months.

“This is an extremely hard decision to make, but it’s (one) that we need to make,” Akins said.

Mayor David Maynard and Cody have said the budget that they presented delivers on several priorities identified by council members over the last several months — including beefed-up public works services, recruitment and retention measures in the fire and police departments (including additional positions, pay increases and higher starting salaries, among others) and $500,000 in funding for the downtown development authority with an emphasis on downtown property redevelopment and master-planning, a drastic step-up from the $8,000 that was budgeted for DDA funding in FY21.

The budget also includes a $1.5% cost-of-living pay adjustment for city employees and the opportunity for a 3% merit-pay raise for all employees not receiving a rate change.

Under the approved budget, the city will decrease its General Fund spending by 4.5% with several expenses being shifted to various user- and impact-fee collection methods. And it will lower by a little over $1 million its reliance on utility-fund transfers to balance the General Fund, though officials have said the transfers are not sustainable long-term given the utility departments’ increasing revenue needs with continuing population growth in the city and county.

Still, residents and council members Terrell and Sheats have continued to be critical of the city’s proposed spending levels in certain areas and have contended it is moving too rapidly to fund priorities by placing more burden on citizens than necessary at one time.

Terrell said that while he understands proposed increases in solid-waste rates and stormwater rates may be needed, he cautioned that the increase from $18 to $23 per month in solid waste and $62 to $87 per year in stormwater will place too much strain on residents with fixed incomes.

“I just think we need to revisit this,” Terrell said. “I think we can cut another mill (roughly $500,000) out of this budget.”

Sheats has been critical of the budget in multiple areas with much of her comments in recent council meetings centering on a proposed $1 million planning department budget that is fueled by what she views as the city’s excessive use of outside professional planning services with an ongoing department head vacancy.

“I’m very disappointed in the way this has fallen out,” Sheats said. “I think that the merit increase and the desperately-needed pay adjustments for our public safety employees are extremely important and should be prioritized over everything else in this budget. Unfortunately, I’m being placed in a position of not being able to consider it a priority because it’s lumped together with other things that I don’t feel like are important enough to be placing on our citizens.”

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