As a public service to the community, The Underground presents point-by-point coverage of the September 13, 2010 LaFayette City Council meeting. WQCH Radio does a good job of attending and covering these meetings (Walker County Messenger usually makes no mention of them), but their coverage is usually limited by the short amount of time they have for reading news. This is a bit more in-depth, with our commentary following in italics.
7:15 PM – 2011 Budget Hearing. City will not raise millage rate, stays at 2.99 mills. “Property de-valuation” will mean $7,381 less tax revenue even with the same tax rate. Council claims no tax increase in ten years, Wayne Swanson says it was over 6 mills ten years ago.
Total 2011 budget will be $20,129,550, slightly less than the 2010 budget. Projected revenue is identical, mostly coming from profits at the utility department. Mayor Neal Florence comments how it was tight this year but next year will be “tighter than it was.”
Even with the budget “tight” the council still set aside $620,000 for the golf course. A majority of that money will come from playing fees and clubhouse sales, but the golf course never breaks even. The city would have an extra hundred-thousand dollars on hand each year without that unneeded expense.
Budget items lower than 2010 include the airport (-14.55%), golf course (-13.24%), administration (-18.61%), cemetery (-17.6%), and recreation department (-5.64%). Increases go mainly to the police department (4.61%), fire department (3.17%), animal control (8.4%), and water/waste water (6.25%).
This budget still spends too much on administration and hobbies, and cuts the public works budget yet again (-1.34%), but overall is heading in a better direction than what we’ve seen in recent years. More for public safety, less for the golf course and airport. We can’t argue with that except for suggesting more drastic changes in the same direction and some additional funds set aside for road paving.
Councilmen discuss hiring a prison work crew to do tree trimming and road work for $40,000. Prisoners are limited in their scheduling and can’t work some dangerous machinery, but the city has used these crews often in the past. Councilman Bill Craig notes that we have a “desperate need to get some grass cut around here” and asks what it would cost to hire an additional employee just to handle mowing. City manager Johnnie Arnold comments it would cost $33,000 a year at the going rate of pay and benefits. Norm Hodge suggests possibility of using high school students to mow.
LaFayette already has employes who mow, but primarily for the rec. department and golf course. Instead of keeping people segregated to mow at each department, the city should move all mowing (for the rec department, golf course, cemetery, rights-of-way, and anywhere else) into Public Works and make that department responsible for the entire city’s appearance. It’s not like Public Works is busy paving roads, so they might as well mow grass.
Ten-minute break between budget meeting and regular council meeting. Several city employees kid around with Bill Craig about going to Bud’s (Chattanooga sports bar) after the meeting. Council members later make jokes about having compromising photos of Craig.
7:40 PM – Regularly scheduled meeting begins. Councilman Andy Arnold opens in prayer, at one point asking God for help with “decisions to better the city.” At this point, we simply pray for decisions that won’t make things worse…
Cherokee Regional Library director Lecia Eubanks presents an update on renovation plans for the LaFayette library. Construction is scheduled to begin next May and will expand the building south while moving main entrances to the north and east sides. The county and city have both committed SPLOST funds to this project along with some state money, but the city will be responsible for much of the cost until state bonds sell.
Virgil Sperry of the Highway 27 Association asks the city to spend $500 to join the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau. That will give the LaFayette Web site a link from chattanoogafun.com and theoretically help cash in on Civil War tourism connected to the war’s 150’s anniversary in 2013.
Council passes 2011 budget, noting that it may have to be amended later to include Mr. Sperry’s requested $500. Council later approves paying $500 for the membership.
Council passes tentative resolution to build new sewage treatment plant required by environmental laws. Project will be funded with a $600,000 state loan and $25,000 from the city’s general fund. 2,000-page contract detailing every aspect of the work has only been read by city attorney Ron Womack. The council was asked, half-jokingly, to read the contract before next meeting.
Sewage treatment is a vital service and this plant expansion is needed to keep up with capacity and stay within the law. But the city wouldn’t need a loan to build it if they hadn’t already wasted all our infrastructure money on their hobbies and pet projects. Also note the council’s hesitance to read lengthy contracts; that’s what leads to open-ended projects that cost more than expected.
Health management representative from Atlanta provides update on city employee health plan. LaFayette has spent $200,000 less this year on health care than budgeted, mainly by sending employees to clinic in Walker County Commissioner’s office. City pays county a set rate for the clinic no matter how much it’s used – after paying that fee the clinic has saved the city over $36,000 vs. the previous year, mainly by reducing doctor and ER visits. Total spent on management plan this year is $1.4 million, or roughly $97,000 per month.
LaFayette is expected to spend $1,572,000 for employee health in 2011, raising employee cost by $4 per week to cover the difference. City employees with families were already paying $84 a week for medical care. Councilmen Tallent and Hodge protest the increase, noting that their own rates have already gone up and employees are complaining about the cost. Tallent and Swanson comment several times that their primary concern is doing what’s best for city employees.
Based on this conversation, members of the council apparently get city health coverage benefits. The best way to conserve city healthcare money is to make the council and mayor ineligible for that coverage. Tallent, Hodge, and Arnold should have insurance available through their paid positions with the State Patrol and Walker Schools, while Swanson and Craig are both old enough to receive medicare. Self-employed Mayor Florence is the only one who would possibly go without health insurance if the city didn’t provide it for him. Since the mayor, his wife, and the city manager’s wife (who all get city health coverage) work at the mayor’s pharmacy, how much is he saving each year on health insurance for his own employees?
Councilmen Tallent and Swanson both ask to see comparative health coverage costs from other companies. Tallent asks “why do we always [discuss health plans] at the last minute? Insurance always runs out two weeks after the city council meeting.” Lengthy discussion of options leads all to conclude they have time to check numbers but not to change plans without leaving employees uninsured for several weeks. Mayor makes note to discuss health coverage in August next year, allowing time to find cheaper alternatives. Council votes 5-0 to approve proposed plan, with councilman Craig commenting “we didn’t have a choice.” Eric Tallent is the newest member of the council but he’s more on top of this than Wayne Swanson, Bill Craig, and Neal Florence – who have all held their elected positions for more than a decade. Why hasn’t anyone considered this before?
City received a single bid of one dollar for donated property at 408 S. Chattanooga St. next to Pit Stop gas station. Interested buyer says he will build an apartment on the virtually worthless lot. Council votes to sell the lot for $1 if buyer pays for title card, and will eventually pay for water and sewer connections when he gets the apartment built. Councilman Tallent abstains from voting. The lot is slightly under two-tenths of an acre – hardly big enough for a dog house, much less an apartment. This property may sit vacant forever, but at least now the city and county can get tax revenues from it.
Council authorizes Department of Public Safety to accept a $5,375 grant from FEMA to repair unspecified flood damage sustained by the fire department. Not sure exactly how the fire department was damaged in the flood, but we suspect this grant is connected to fire hydrant repairs. In the last week fire crews from the city and Walker State Prison have been methodically repairing and repainting the city’s hydrants. This is something long overdue, but it’s good to see bright yellow WORKING fire plugs in the city of LaFayette.
Council announces the city has been given a $250,000 grant from the Georgia Department of Transportation to do “streetscape work” on the east side of the square, down Patton St. to the courthouse and along Duke Street. Plans were approved six or seven years ago but the money was tied up until State Senator Jeff Mullis intervened to have it released. The city will be required to match the grant with $60,000 (or possibly 60%, notes aren’t clear) from the general fund. Per state law the contract is awarded to low bidder: Forsyth-based Johnson Landscaping.
“Free” money isn’t free when a cash-strapped municipality has to match grants with funding of its own. LaFayette needs to do streetscaping all over town, but that short stretch of sidewalk and asphalt on Patton St. between the square and the “covrthovse” is probably one of the nicest segments of street in the entire town – and all of South Duke was paved and cleaned up before the Sam Parker case last year. Where’s our state grant for streetscaping work on Chattanooga Street, sidewalks for Indiana Street, or asphalt for some of the dozens of thoroughfares in town that haven’t been paved since the 1980’s?
Council enters a lengthy discussion with attorney and Codes Supervisor Rod Robertson about cleaning up dilapidated or abandoned properties. Councilmen are especially interested in cleaning up a property on First St. that burned back in May. Even with ordinances in place that punish property owners who don’t maintain some basic standards, getting anything done with this particular piece of land is a legal nightmare beyond anything the city is capable of doing without thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Legal roadblocks to cleaning up one property shouldn’t keep the city from working to clean up others – and the city has many properties of its own that also need to be cleaned up. This topic is complicated and deserves a separate report; we’ll expand on this later on and try to get to the heart of LaFayette’s blighted property problems.
Wayne Swanson proposes a “fall rate” for the golf course, charging only $20 for a full round with cart Tuesday-Thursday until at least the end of October. Council passes measure 5-0 with Mayor Florence saying “maybe that’ll help” the city or course. The course loses money, as we’ve pointed out time and time again. Lowering rates there during the best weather of the year won’t do much to bring in new people to play, it will just benefit those who already golf regularly and deepen the city’s golf-related losses.
Swanson also mentions golf cart batteries are beginning to go bad. The city owes nothing on the carts but can’t make money from them if they aren’t functional. Battery replacement costs are not included in the budget just passed. Mayor says the issue will be addressed at a future meeting once ten or more carts become unusable. Good golf cart batteries cost over $100 each, some up into the $400 range. How many rounds of golf at $20 each will it take just to make up that cost? Again, and again, the golf course is a black hole that eats the city’s money and contributes nothing to the lives of most citizens.
Councilman Bill Craig says only one restaurant has applied for a license to sell beer and wine inside the city. Other restaurants interested in pouring won’t apply until 2011 because they don’t want to pay the full year price just to have it available during the last three months of this year. The one restaurant that did apply isn’t serving alcohol yet because they haven’t obtained a state license.
Darryl White is nominated to the airport committee. He will be replacing a member from Jacksonville Florida who recently stepped down. It’s no wonder the airport is such a boondoggle if we have people from out of state supervising it. Mr. White joins Dr. Paul Shaw and (we assume) Councilman Swanson (who managed the airport for 17 years) on the committee. Unclear how many people total sit on the committee or who else is part of it. No other mention of the airport was made during this meeting.
Mayor Florence and City Manager Arnold have been in talks with Walker County Board of Elections regarding the use of county electronic voting machines for city elections. This idea was proposed by the county and would provide quicker results for municipal elections. City would have to pay for setup costs and any overtime fees for county employees. No action taken during this meeting since details are still being worked out.
This is a spectacular idea that should save city voters from the paper-ballots-and-pencils mess we had last November. The machines also provide an additional level of security that should help us replace Bill Craig and Wayne Swanson during next November’s primary election.
Assistant Public Safety Director Bengie Clift attending meeting while Tommy Freeman recovers from triple-bypass surgery. Clift reports that the city fire department responded to the Carriage Hills apartment fire on Labor Day in two minutes, eighteen seconds. He says 17 men fought a fire that should have taken sixty, but with recently-purchased equipment they managed to save the lower floor of the building. A kitchen fire in Linwood reported at the same time was put out by an LPD officer using only his hands. Clift brags on the department’s quick response and professional behavior. No mention is made of the latest Linwood arson fire also set the same night a block away from the kitchen fire.
LaFayette Fire Department does a good job, especially considering they’re understaffed, have a small budget, and have a Public Safety Director who lacks significant fire experience.