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.”
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.