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Proposed Winder budget would double millage rate as council still split

Winder Mayor David Maynard’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget presented to the city council last week would roughly double — rather than more than triple, as pitched last month — the city’s millage rate while cutting back on some new funding priorities identified by council members and reducing some of the city’s General Fund’s reliance on utility-fund transfers.

But reactions to the plan remained mixed during a council work session Thursday, July 1, and public hearing Tuesday, July 6, as the city’s administration faced more criticism from some council members and residents over proposed spending levels in certain departments and over the timeframe officials have proposed for adopting a budget.

If adopted later this month without any major amendments, the city’s $18 million General Fund budget would require a millage increase from 3 to 6 mills, according to current mill-value projections, though roughly half a mill of that increase would stem from the city administration’s proposal to remove the $50-per-parcel streetlight assessment from tax bills and absorb that service into the General Fund, or the regular millage rate.

Increasing the millage rate from 3 to 6 mills is projected to raise taxes on a home with a $160,000 fair-market value by $227 per year, or just under $19 per month, according to figures presented by city administrator Mandi Cody.

As proposed, the city would keep the separate assessment on taxpayer bills to help fund operations at the Winder Public Library as well as library building maintenance and repairs. Residents would see their solid waste rates increase from $18 to $23 per month to help fully fund an enhanced collections program, including dedicated weekly routes and one-day pickup as well as street sweeping. They would also see their stormwater rates raised from $62 to $87 per year, an increase that Cody said is necessary to allow the city to qualify for state financing for needed stormwater infrastructure projects.

The council held its required public hearing on the budget Tuesday night at the Winder and then had further discussion amongst members for about an hour. The body is now scheduled to hold a vote on adoption of a budget with an anticipated millage rate July 20, with no other further work sessions that had been scheduled between now and then as of press time. The proposed millage-rate increase would then require three separate public hearings before council approval. If the millage projections are different from the numbers in Barrow County’s tax digest, which is due to be certified by Sept. 1, that would likely require the council to approve budget amendments, Cody said.

The city is already late adopting an FY22 budget after FY21 ended June 30, but the council approved last month a spending resolution that continues city appropriations at the previous fiscal year’s levels until a new budget is adopted.

But councilwoman Holly Sheats and some residents in attendance at Thursday’s work session said the proposed adoption timeline is still too compressed, noting that the budget wasn’t made available on the city’s website or to council members until the evening of June 30, less than 24 hours before the meeting.

“I feel rushed, and I don’t feel like I’ll have adequate time to have all my questions answered (in three weeks),” Sheats said.

SOME BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS

In total, the proposed budget — across all funds — estimates roughly $64.5 million in revenues and $84 million in expenses, with the difference primarily due to capital utility projects that would need to be financed, Cody said.

Maynard and Cody said the proposed budget would deliver on several council priorities — 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. That represents a much larger investment than the $8,000 that was budgeted for DDA funding in FY21, but was cut in half from the $1 million originally being pitched by some council members — most vocally, councilman Chris Akins.

The city is proposing a 4.5% drop in General Fund spending down to around $18.1 million, with administration aiming to shift some General Fund expenses to various user- and impact-fee collection methods. That would still, though, leave the fund at a nearly $5 million deficit, which officials are proposing to close primarily with a $4.5 million transfer from the city’s water and wastewater utility fund.

That would lower the city’s reliance on utility-fund transfers to balance the General Fund by a little more than $1 million over FY21, though Cody has cautioned that the transfers are not sustainable long-term given the utility departments’ increasing revenue needs with continuing population growth in the city and county.

“It’s (a reduction), but it’s still a healthy transfer,” Cody said. “And we are reaching the point in our utility projects, water and sewer specifically, where all the revenues generated by that utility are really going to be (needed) by that utility. So we may be in a position where we have to borrow more than we anticipated on capital debt in that utility in order to buffer that transfer.”

Maynard has said the city should work toward getting the transfers down to zero or at least at a lower fixed amount, and city officials have even suggested eliminating the reliance entirely right away. But that would require a much steeper millage increase — likely at least 11 mills — and, other than Akins, that idea garnered very little support from the council and severe backlash from a large contingent of residents at a June 17 meeting.

Still, Maynard suggested the proposed budget with the $1 million transfer reduction and smaller millage increase than previously discussed would at least get the city off on the right track.

“I understand there’s parts of this you’re not going to like and we’re all not going to agree on every piece of it,” he told council members Thursday. “I hope you’ll (approve a budget) that will move the city forward and (allow it to) benefit. As much as the citizens don’t want an increase, failure to do so could cost more (in the long run). If you don’t (agree with the proposal), with all due respect, I ask that you present hard numbers that you feel like you could support.”

SPENDING CONCERNS REMAIN

But reactions among council members Thursday to Maynard’s proposal varied.

Councilman Travis Singley seemed to signal his support, pointing to the ramped-up public works programming, retention and recruitment efforts in public safety and a planned 1.5% cost-of-living pay adjustment for city employees.

“It’s pretty good. I’m impressed,” Singley said.

Akins, who was not in attendance Thursday, wrote in an email that he would support a compromise between passing a budget that’s “best for the city’s financial health and (is) as fair as possible to our citizens,” though he did propose a millage increase to 8 mills that would be projected to eliminate roughly 75% of utility-fund transfers. He also said he would not support a budget that funds the DDA below $500,000 or one that doesn’t include the new public works and sanitation director position that Cody has recommended.

On the other hand, councilman Jimmy Terrell and Sheats repeated their criticism of proposed spending levels, particularly on professional services in the planning department, which would drive that department’s budget over $1 million. Sheats, at the council’s June 17 meeting, had zeroed in on the city’s use of an outside firm — CPL — to head up planning services as the city continues a search to fill its vacant planning director position, which has not yet been filled despite the city having hired another firm to conduct the search. The council has not approved a contract with CPL, though the city has shelled out tens of thousands of dollars already in just the past few months, Sheats pointed out.

“We’re spending way too much money right now (on outside planning services), in my mind,” Terrell added Thursday.

Cody has said if the city brings its planning department back up to full staffing as planned, that will eliminate some of the professional services needs but not all of them. That’s because, she said, the department currently lacks, and has lacked, proper professional certifications required by state law to conduct various reviews and inspections.

“The goal (in continuing to contract out certain services) would be to come into compliance and help ensure the quality of development in the city,” Cody said, adding that she believes the city should invest more heavily in developing a local transportation plan (which it does not currently have) so that it can compete for federal grants.

But while Cody has noted to the council in recent meetings that the city has been actually operating on more services than it is charging its citizens for through the millage rate, Sheats said that doesn’t mean the city should pass the heavier burden down to city in large chunks. She also said she was frustrated that the council didn’t receive projections on the financial impacts of its priorities much earlier in the year.

“While I see the value in all the things that are on our list of ambitions, I would never have signed on if I knew it was going to be asking my citizens for a doubling of our millage rate in one year,” Sheats said. “I think you go up incrementally. I think we plan, and I think we have to put some things on the back burner. I don’t see enough tightening up on spending in this budget. (As proposed), we’re under last year’s amended budget. But there are so many things that have gone up that I can’t justify looking a citizen in the eye and asking them (to be OK with an increase to 6 mills).

“We’re asking too much, too soon.”

OTHER BUSINESS

In votes during its Tuesday meeting, the council:

•approved a utility relocation reimbursement agreement with Forestar Real Estate Group Inc. for the relocation of natural gas utilities in conflict with future construction of the Preserve at Dove Creek residential subdivision on a parcel along Highway 53 (Hog Mountain Road) and awarded a construction contract for $237,500 to low bidder Pride Utility Construction Co. (out of three bids) for the utility relocation. The developer will reimburse the city for the expense.

•appointed Anne Cronic to the Winder Piedmont Regional Library Board for a term that will expire June 30, 2025. Cronic will take over for Angela Buckhead.

•appointed Ann Pack to the Winder Housing Authority Board for a term that will expire April 20, 2026.

•approved alcoholic beverage licenses for Short Shop at 228 North Broad St., Miranda’s Mexican restaurant at 47 East May St. and 2B Best Package at 64 McNeal Rd., Suite D.


Casto Trading Company hosted Statham’s sixth annual Star-Spangled Statham celebration on Saturday, July 3. It was estimated that 8,000 attended the festival. The event featured music by Bruce Bennett, games, inflatables, food and family fun. Drew Casto thanked those who attended the community event. “We host this event to give back to the community for their support throughout the year. We hope that everyone will visit the shops downtown that make this town thrive,” said Casto.


Lolla Carter, 7, is shown enjoying the firework display in downtown Statham on Saturday, July 3.


Emery Johnson, 7, Peyton Hodgens, 6, and Ellie Johnson, 5, were decked out in stars, stripes and glowsticks at the sixth annual Star-Spangled Statham celebration on Saturday, July 3.


Gracie Cannon, 3, played with sparklers while waiting for the firework show in downtown Statham on Saturday, July 3.


News
Statham’s FY19 audit complete as city continues to play catch-up

The City of Statham’s fiscal year 2019 audit has been completed — and work on the FY20 one is underway — as the city continues efforts to catch up on its financial statements so it can regain eligibility for crucial state grant monies for capital-improvement projects.

The results of the FY19 audit were turned over to the city recently, and city officials said proper accounting procedures and internal controls oversight measures have been or are being implemented in an effort to bring the city into compliance and prevent numerous issues identified by the auditor from reoccurring.

The auditing firm currently being used by the city, BatesCarter of Gainesville, said in its final report that it had to make $193,381 in revenue-account adjustments and $61,811 in expense-account adjustments to accurately reflect those for FY19, which ended June 30, 2019.

The auditors identified eight other conditions in their report — several of them reissued from prior audits — and generally pointed to a lack of proper internal controls and procedures as well as inadequate record-keeping, which led to inaccurate accounting of monies and financial reports.

Among the problems identified, according to the report:

•Month-close procedures were not completed or reviewed in a timely manner, creating a greater risk of cash misappropriation.

•Some monthly utility billings were not recorded accurately.

•Some purchases had neither check copies nor supporting invoices.

•Employee files were outdated and did not reflect the correct pay rate for those employees.

•Cash bonds received by the city’s municipal court were not recorded as a liability for funds held in trust for others. The auditor recommended placing bonds received in a separate bank account, and the city agreed to make that change.

•The finance department accrued group health insurance employee withholdings, but did not make timely remittances to the Georgia Municipal Association, an issue that city officials said has since been corrected.

“We understand that, during previous administrations, certain areas of the city’s finances were left inadequate,” Mayor Joe Piper wrote in response to the auditors in the city’s “corrective action plan” attached to the final audit report.

Piper, who took office in January 2020, has touted the progress the city has made in getting its finances under order with the help of city accountant April Plank Stephens, who was hired by Piper at the start of his administration.

“With a new and knowledgeable administration, we anticipate, moving forward, that the city’s audits will be less stressful for everyone involved and the city’s finances will be better handled and accounted for,” Piper wrote. “We strive to be in compliance, and to provide our citizens with true and accurate financial statements.”

Stephens said the final FY19 audit will be presented to the city council for formal acceptance later this month, and the city is aiming for the end of this calendar year for completion of the FY20 audit, which is also being handled by BatesCarter. Stephens said the city’s goal is to finish the FY21 audit before the end of FY22 next June, which would bring the city completely up to date.

BatesCarter has now completed the city’s fiscal 2017, 2018 and 2019 audits over the last 22 months since being hired by the city council in August 2019. The city made the switch in auditing firms after several council members and former Mayor Robert Bridges grew increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied with numerous delays and what they viewed as a lack of responsiveness from previous firm Hawkins & McNair, which was nearly three years late completing the fiscal 2015 and 2016 audits.

The lack of up-to-date auditing has plagued Statham financially for the past few years as the city has been on the state’s non-compliance list since early 2016, rendering it ineligible for state grant money to help fund road improvements and other infrastructure projects.

The full final FY19 audit and other financial reports and documents can be found on the city’s website at www.cityofstatham.com/Finance.aspx.


News
Another arrest made in murder of Bethlehem woman

Four people have now been arrested for the April murder of a Bethlehem woman, while three others remain at large.

Juan Ayala-Rodriguez, 35, of Gainesville, was arrested June 26 in Durango, Mexico, and the United States Marshal’s Service in San Diego oversaw his transfer to a detention facility in California, where he was awaiting extradition to Georgia on as of Saturday, July 3, according to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation news release.

Ayala-Rodriguez is among seven people to be charged with murder in the killing of Rossana Delgado, 37, who worked as a taxi driver in Gwinnett County and was last heard from the night of April 16 and seen on surveillance footage at a store in Chamblee that night. Her body was found at a cabin in Gilmer County on April 20.

Three suspects — Megan Colone, 30, of Stone Mountain, Oscar Manuel Garcia, 26, of Austell, and Juan Antonio Vega, 25, of Cobb County — were arrested May 15 in Mexico. Three other suspects — Mario Alberto Barbosa-Juarez, 29, of Oklahoma, Carolina Jazmin Rodriguez-Ramirez, 28, of Oklahoma, and Maria Katherine Chavez Encarnacion, 28, of Marietta — remained at large as of Saturday and are believed to also be in Mexico.

An eighth person, 28-year-old Calvin Harvard of Covington, was arrested in connection with the case April 28 and charged with tampering with evidence and theft by receiving stolen property after Delgado’s vehicle and two suspects’ vehicles were found in his possession.

Authorities have not yet publicly commented on how Delgado was killed or on a potential motive.

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the at-large suspects or with information on the case is asked to contact the GBI. Tips can also be submitted by calling 1-800-597-TIPS(8477), online at https://gbi.georgia.gov/submit-tips-online, or by downloading the See Something, Send Something mobile app.


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