LENOX — Valdosta City Council discussed paying down the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority loan in a timely manner and briefly mentioned raising taxes Friday during the first day of the city officials’ annual retreat.
In early November, the City of Valdosta received a GEFA loan exceeding $30 million. The city plans to pay off $32 million of that loan by 2020.
Mark Barber, Valdosta’s deputy city manager of administration, presented the seven-year plan which highlighted the delicate balance of SPLOST VII revenues and utilizing the GEFA loans.
In 2014, the city will not make a payment on its GEFA loan, but it will use $16 million to begin constructing the new Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant. Bidding for this project will begin next month, the contract could be awarded as soon as April, and construction could begin in June.
The city will begin paying off the GEFA loan with SPLOST VII revenue in 2015 by $500,000; in 2016, $1 million; in 2017, $6 million; in 2018, $10 million; and in 2019-2020, $14.5 million, Barber said.
This should settle the principal on the loan. City Manger Larry Hanson said the city will pay off the loan interest with the cash flow. Valdosta Mayor John Gayle compared the loan to a construction loan, where you only draw from it as you need it.
Valdosta’s budget and its concerns took up much of the retreat’s time, with city officials alluding to an increase in taxes.
During the introduction portion of the meeting, the mayor and councilmen were asked to share a concern they have for Valdosta in 2014, and Gayle said, “I am concerned that Valdosta is not always recognized for its greatness. We have some of the lowest tax rates in the state, while at the same time many people complain about our taxes. So I am concerned about the city’s image.”
After reviewing the plans for SPLOST VII revenue, Hanson said, “The budget is set and it cannot be increased. We can rearrange the items, but the pie cannot get larger.”
Councilman Joseph “Sonny” Vickers said, “There are a lot of consequences with only lowering taxes, sometimes we have to raise taxes.”
Hanson replied, “We will have to discuss that during our budget meeting. In the past, we reduced it by $9 million and population grew. This caused the city to have less money and less employees.”
Near the end of the meeting, Hanson said, “The city has grown by 11,000 people and we haven’t added any policemen or sanitation workers, and one third of our workers are part-time.”
Barber informed the council that the city will watch the budget closely, and the city needs to be able to react quickly if a project appears to be going over budget, or if revenue drops.
In terms of revenue, the council momentarily discussed the Local Option Sales Tax by saying it is in the hands of state legislators and they intend to apply to ratify the bill, but it has to be approved by the state attorney general.
Approximately 70 percent of SPLOST VII revenues are expected to go towards the city’s water and sewer issues. Other key SPLOST items include improving city roads with $11.6 million; $4 million for the public safety radio system; four new pumper fire trucks to replace the ones purchased in 1998 to meet the goal of lowering the city’s ISO rating; four new refuse trucks; and one new street sweeper. Vickers was adamant about adding more street sweepers to the budget based constituents’ complaints.
Hanson said the fire and refuse trucks will be bid on at the same time, but wants to stagger the delivery because SPLOST revenues do not arrive in one lump sum. This would also ease the burden of future councilmen by allowing them to stagger the future purchases of these items.
Council discussed the continuation of diverting semi-truck traffic away from Downtown Valdosta. Hanson said there has been a detour in place for more than a year because of the Hill Avenue overpass construction, and he plans discussing the possibility of a permanent detour with the Georgia Department of Transportation.
The mayor and each councilmember presented topics they would like to consider in 2014.
Vickers briefly discussed an ordinance prohibiting sagging pants, but this item was dropped due to concerns from his fellow councilmembers about regulating morality.
Councilman Tim Carroll along with newly elected Counilmember Sandra Tooley recommended two items that promoted an increase in the city’s transparency.
Carroll recommended council put more of its packet information on the city website, but Hanson said the city goes above and beyond what the state requires it to do and the city does not have the staff to compile two packets. Hanson added, citizens can always file an open-records request to get the entire packet.
Tooley requested televising council meetings on the city’s Channel 17, but Hanson said the city has neither the equipment nor the staff to implement this request.
Councilmen Ben Norton and Tim Carroll discussed improvements to the Five Points intersection including the piping of the ditches. Carroll informed The Times that piping of the ditch on the Oak Street Extension at Five Points will begin April 28.
Vickers raised the topic of winning elections by majority, as opposed to the implemented 50 percent plus one rule. Tooley bolstered his argument because she just competed in a runoff election and she said it was expensive for not only her, but the city because it had to pay the poll workers.
Gayle supported the current system because he wants to know more than half of the voters support him. Hanson informed the council, “The state law would have to change for it to allow it,” and Tooley replied, “We could talk to the state to see if they will leave it up to the cities.”
Councilmen Alvin Payton Jr., and Tooley requested the city revisit the public transportation issue, but the item was taken off the table because it will run at a deficit.
Gayle mentioned mayor and council compensation. He said, “I don’t think we need to be paid if we go on vacation.” Gayle proposed the councilmembers take their salaries and divide them by the amount of work sessions, and requested the council be paid on a per meeting basis. This is supposed to act as a reprimand for any unapproved absence. Councilman Robert Yost and Norton supported this idea; Vickers requested the council not make permanent solutions to temporary problems.
Other items discussed were:
• Improving the city’s entranceways
• Partnering with Google to increase the city’s broadband speed
• Conducting another traffic study for the purpose of a traffic light at the Bemiss and Connell intersection, and a left turn signal at Connell heading south on N. Ashley
• A sidewalk on South Troup Street (MLK to Griffin)
• Refurbishing Bland Park
• Reviewing the ordinance that deals with beggars, homeless, and panhandling
• Targeting high school students for a City Government 101 class
• Street Resurfacing
• The appearance and functionality of the Five Points intersection
Council continues the second and final day of the retreat, 8:30 a.m. today, Lenox River Ranch.