No tax hike, but now what? Mayor Fleisch charges she was blindsided; Imker says city staff had been notified, offers detailed defense
By JOHN THOMPSON
Nerves are frayed at Peachtree City Hall, as the city’s staff sharpens their pencils to create a new budget, while Mayor Vanessa Fleisch claims she was totally left out of the loop in the wake of the City Council’s late Thursday night 3-to-2 vote to leave the millage rate the same.
Nearly four days after the vote, the city’s staff is trying to figure out the exact amount the city’s budget will be for fiscal year 2015. Nobody at City Hall, from the city’s finance director to the mayor, knows how much the city’s expenditures will be after a somewhat chaotic and confusing number of motions were needed Thursday night to pass the budget.
“That’s why I wanted to table the budget until the next meeting. Staff is still trying to regroup,” Fleisch said.
The millage rate passed with Imker, Kim Learnard and Mike King supporting leaving it unchanged at 6.756 mills and the bond rate unchanged at .0332 mills.
The budget approval came after a lengthy presentation by Imker, who urged the council to live within its means and beseeched them to turn down the proposed one mill increase recommended by staff.
The extra tax money would have generated just over $1.7 million, which the city would have used to give a 3 percent across-the-board pay hike to city employees, along with bringing landscaping in-house and paving more of the city’s streets.
The council also voted to increase the golf cart registration fee from $12 every five years to $15 for five years. The increase is expected to net $35,000 in five years, and Imker also wants to see the fee prorated for residents who purchase golf carts late in the year.
“It would have been nice if Councilman [Terry] Ernst and I had known about this,” the mayor said.
Fleisch said during the lengthy budget process, the direction of the council was clearly to provide more services for the city’s residents.
“No one ever objected to this direction,” she added.
After the axe dropped on the proposed $32 million budget, the council passed several of Imker’s recommendations including delaying purchasing five new police vehicles, implementing an inverted 2 percent salary raise and instructing City Manager Jim Pennington to cut $100,000 from the city’s budget, including chopping travel costs and cutting subscriptions to various periodicals.
Another item that will find its way into the new budget is an alternative means for mowing and landscaping. The city originally proposed hiring 22 workers to bring the work back in house, but Imker urged a different way.
He said the city needs to a award a new right of way mowing contract to include a longer season and more frequency. He also said the city should just hire 12 employees, which includes six that were already hired in the previous year. By using this approach, he estimates the city could save $70,000 in equipment costs.
The biggest item Imker slashed was a proposed $720,000 increase in road maintenance and said the current budgeted amount of $770,000 should be focused on neighborhood streets since previous year’s funds went to big-ticket projects such as Dividend Drive and Crosstown Road.
He also asked that purchases at the library be cut, along with not budgeting $100,000 for a deputy police chief nor spending $60,000 for street lights.
On Monday, Finance Director Paul Salvatore was scrambling to prepare a new budget.
“I don’t have a clearly adopted budget, even though they passed a budget resolution,” he said.
One of the problems the staff faces is Imker used several round numbers in his budget analysis.
“It’s a little problematic,” Salvatore added.
Salvatore said the City Council was not really vocal during the budget hearings, and seemed to go along with the staff’s recommendations … until Thursday night.
The Citizen emailed Imker a series of questions after Thursday’s vote and here are his emailed responses.
The Citizen: Was everyone on the City Council notified that you were going to propose such sweeping cuts?
Imker: “Please forgive me for this correction, but there are no ‘sweeping cuts’ from the current year’s budget to next. In fact, just the opposite has happened. Please make sure your readers understand that with the new budget we were able to add $3M of new spending on facilities/infrastructure without the need for a tax increase next year because of careful budgeting and planning the previous couple years. Additionally, we are significantly increasing spending on known problem areas like mowing and landscaping. This will bring us fully back to the point of where we were before the cuts of six years ago.
“Everyone will be noticing the improved look of the city. The bonus with the new approach is now we’ll have our own in-house labor, on call, so we can address any areas of concern raised by citizens and not depend on a contract with a fixed schedule or non-contracted areas. We’re increasing cart path repaving and maintenance. I couldn’t be happier that we’re finally going to be able to achieve this level of service.
“Tacking on another $1.7 million (1 mill tax increase worth of revenue generation) of additional spending and asking the citizens to pay even more on top of the last four years’ worth of increases in city taxes, fees and other service charges was simply not needed and not the right way to go in my opinion.
“The lack of economic recovery continues to hold back all our desires to increase services. When the economy finally turns around we can consider those increased levels of service — not before and especially not advancing those services with more taxes. I insist we live within our means.
“Now to your question. Everyone on council knew I supported the increased $3M spending on facilities and infrastructure as well as increased spending on cart path maintenance and landscaping. Did they know I didn’t support the additional 1 mill increase? You bet they did! I can’t count the number of times I mentioned the ‘Will of the voters’ on last November’s SPLOST and how I was going to respect that vote by the citizens to hold the line on road maintenance which was the bulk of the 1 mill increase”
The Citizen: Did you ever indicate during any of the budget hearings or workshops that you were opposed to raising the millage rate?
Imker: “I said so, on the record, during the very first public hearing, FY2015 Budget Hearing agenda item 07-14-01 held July 17. I said point blank, I do not support a mill increase. For many months prior to that everyone, everyone knew I was not going to support a mill increase. The city manager developed a proposed budget based on goals and objectives council identified. He did exactly as instructed. A budget was developed to meet those targets and it required an additional 1 mill tax increase to achieve them. All because he did this did not mean we were going to approve it.
“Development of the proposed budget by the city manager concluded after the mid-July public hearing. It became a baseline from which to judge for ourselves exactly what our priorities should be based on how much each of the services were going to cost. I hope everyone understands, this is program management 101. All because we asked for everything didn’t mean we were prepared to actually go out and buy it.”
The Citizen: Why did you wait until the last minute to propose your changes?
Imker: “It takes time to do what I did. I had been working on this for at least six months. It’s not easy getting the level of detail I needed to make sure all the facts were exactly right and what the consequences of every dollar means in terms of services to be provided. Imagine the ammunition provided to those who wanted to raise taxes even more if my data was flawed in anyway whatsoever. I wasn’t going to provide A- work. I wanted to provide A+ work.
“I wanted to get through the four public hearings (one on the budget and three on the mill rate) and hear the citizens’ voices on the baseline proposal before making my final recommendation. In fact, I heard many more folks say No to the tax increase than say Yes. In fact, one gentleman even spoke in favor of the increase at the first public hearing on the mill rate and then when he heard about the alternative I was working on he told me he didn’t know that someone was developing an alternative. He said he changed his mind on what he said at the first public hearing and was now against the tax increase; with good reason once he knew the accurate picture of the increases in services that were going to happen without the need for a tax increase.
“Everyone knew I was coming in with changes. Senior city staff knew it, all the council members knew it.
“Senior staff had been helping me with facts and costs I needed for the alternative proposal for months. This is something that just didn’t happen in the last week or so. The city manager knew what I was doing for months. He was copied on all my inquires with senior staff. He may not have agreed with what I was going to propose but that’s not his job. His job was to develop a proposed budget and then execute the direction the majority of city council sets. Making the final changes to the baseline proposed budget, both service wise and financially, literally took a month, from mid-July to the council meeting on Aug. 21. The city finance director helped me get the numbers right for the proposed alternate budget over the last month. These were not my numbers, they were staff’s numbers with the financial director concurring and that’s what was presented.
“Things were literally changing in the presentation up until the final hearing last Thursday evening. For example, not to eliminate the city’s police Special Response Team (SRT) was a last-minute change. That change happened because I didn’t have the final details at the level of fidelity I demanded of myself. I wasn’t going to recommend something without being 100 percent sure.
“The changes proposed are really not that radical. Half of it was not doing the 100 percent increase in road paving and keeping it at near the level as previous years. Forgive me for saving over 1/4 million tax dollars ($200K in off the top in outlay savings and $75K in reduced public works purchases of equipment) on recommending an approach for mowing and landscaping that will wind up with a better product and less overhead for the future of the city. Holding the line on salary and other such items are not earth shattering ideas. I told every one of the major changes I was going to be making. It wasn’t hard to figure out the alternative was going to be mostly roads, landscaping and salary. Anyone saying they didn’t know what was coming is not being frank.”
“Claiming these were last minute is not on my radar. They were probably shocked at the depth, accuracy, fidelity, simplicity, elegance and rationale of the final product that was shared last Thursday evening. That may have been the ‘last minute’ part that has everyone buzzing.
“This talk of how ‘hard’ it’s going to be to ‘change’ the budget now is utterly absurd. Staff has a month and a half to edit numbers in their databases. The five-year budget model with the zero mill increase plan already has all the numbers in it. It just needs to be adjusted for the SRT expense. If you look at the difference between the two five-year models (with 1 mill and without 1 mill) the difference is exactly $1.725M. I.e., 1 mill. This is exactly 100 percent accounted for with the new alternate budget.
“Generating panic by saying staff has to work weekends to ‘fix’ the budget when given a month and a half before the required deadline of Sept. 30 is nothing more than an amateurish attempt to discredit the new approved budget by those who desperately wanted to increase your taxes.”
The Citizen: Do you know the exact amount of the budget the City Council passed Thursday night?
Imker: “Yes. Data from the 5-year budget model with 0 mill in FY2015 presented shows the following:
“Total revenue = $30,349,986
“Total expenditure = $30,744,343 + ($15,000 because SRT wasn’t cut but was assumed cut in the model)
“Use of reserves = $ 394,397 + ($15,000 for SRT back in)
“Any changes the finance director includes next time we see the model will be because he has new information. That’s bound to happen. Experienced program manager know this. Just remember, changes that will be made to the new budget will have happened to the 1 mill increase plan equally, not because of the new budget direction.”
The Citizen: You said that you anticipate the budget being amended. Do you anticipate additional meetings in September before the new budget starts Oct.1?
Imker: “We passed a budget with known numbers. If there needs to be clarity on the exact dollar figures, because I was rounding in my presentation for ease of briefing purposes, then sure, we can go over the numbers again. I do not expect any changes related to the direction given.
“Again, experience is the key. No manager in the world can exactly predict what will happen in the future. Anybody who comes in with exactly the value for expenditures at the end of the fiscal year that were proposed in the beginning is not someone I would want on my team.
“As I said in the presentation, I expect the City Manager, Chief of Police, Fire/EMS Chief and Director of Community Services/Public Works to let us know how things are going half way through the fiscal year. If they say they can’t get the job done then we, council, will consider budget amendments. Heck, we made a million dollars in amendments this current FY. I would rather start at a reasonable level and see how things are going. This is taxpayer money, your money and mine. You elected me to be the guardian of your money and spend it wisely. I take that responsibility as a sacred oath.
“I know of no other government agency run as efficiently as Peachtree City government. We should be proud of all our public employees. This city is on a course that will keep it as one of the best places to live in Georgia, despite any naysayers.”