More than three dozen residents attended a budget meeting hosted by newly-elected Councilman Eric Imker Saturday afternoon at City Hall in Peachtree City.
Imker, citing a $3.3 million shortfall for the approaching 2010-2011 budget year, insists council needs to adopt mid-year budget cuts this year, and soon.
Outlining his budget review Saturday, Imker said the city can easily trim that shortfall and avoid a tax increase.
Imker said the city should go further and enact more cuts. He was blunt in his assessment of the city’s situation, particularly his claim that the city has too many employees. He did, however, cite the planning and building departments for being run as lean as they possibly could staff-wise.
Imker chided his fellow council members for pursuing design of a new golf cart bridge along Lake Peachtree and Ga. Highway 54. The estimated $851,000 construction cost would come from SPLOST funds, but Imker contended a wider bridge is a “nice to have” instead of a need for the city.
The existing bridge is too narrow for golf carts in either direction to pass each other, so cart drivers often have to wait until the other crosses. Also, it was pointed out at the Jan. 21 meeting that there isn’t much room for golf carts to avoid pedestrians on the bridge.
Imker was not in attendance at the meeting, and council voted only to pursue with the bridge design that would widen the path. A vote on seeking bids for the project is projected for a future date.
Imker said the city needs to stretch out its SPLOST dollars by cutting back on projects such as intersection improvements so the funding can last for several years.
“We have to forego some of the nice to haves for some of the got to haves,” Imker said.
Imker was also critical of the wording of a survey question in the survey published to city residents. He said questions forcing citizens to choose between cuts in city services or increased city taxes were invalid.
The city should have asked on the survey if the city could “live within its means,” Imker said.
Imker also said the city would need to postpone funding for a proposal that along with the town of Tyrone would reduce train whistles sounding as they travel through Wilksmoor Village. Tyrone is not able to hold up to its end in the bargain, so the city can save its estimated $800,000 cost for that project, Imker said.
Resident Kevin Cheney later said that project should never be considered for city funding simply because the people who are complaining about the issue knew there was a railroad track there when they moved into their home. He said the subdivision developer should be forced to pay for the project.
Imker said some of those residents have been taken by surprise at the train whistles blowing in the very early morning hours.
Several in the audience bristled at the fact that a proposal in increase city employee’s salaries was even under consideration by the City Council in light of the current economy. A few residents said they themselves had seen drastic cuts in their income so they felt there was no need to offer pay raises to city employees.
When a resident asked who was responsible for the proposal being on the table, Imker said it was Mayor Don Haddix.
Imker was also critical of the Fayette County Commission, saying the board should abandon the West Fayetteville Bypass project and return the money to the city.
“The county commission has the authority to give that money back,” Imker said. “… We need to remind them there’s an election coming up and if they have any clue, they can give it back.”
Imker also criticized spending in the city’s tourism efforts. He said the tourism association’s $482,000 budget includes 187,000 in salaries for three people. He was also critical of the city’s tourism arm spending $12,000 for travel and $15,000 for a website.
“I said, ‘Holy Cow, $15,000 for a website?’ I did my entire campaign for about $80 a year. That’s why I’m upset there.”
Citizen Mike King asked Imker if he had figures on how much money the tourism efforts brought into the city. Imker said he did not have that information.
Imker also weighed in on a possible increase of the city’s hotel motel tax from 6 to 8 percent. He said he would not support an increase, but he does support adopting a new distribution ratio that would give the city an additional $128,000 a year.
Doing so would come at the expense of Falcon Field, whose hotel-motel tax revenues would fall from $102,000 to $64,000 a year, and also the tourism association, which would fall to $256,000 from its current level of $409,000. All these figures are based on the estimated revenue for the current budget year.
Imker noted that the city’s court fines are below projections by 18 percent. He said he plans to meet with Municipal Court Judge Stephen Ott to “tactfully” inquire about the issue so he can understand the issue.
The city is not in bad financial shape because of the efforts of the city’s financial staff, Imker said. Rather, previous city councils have failed to follow the finance department’s advice, Imker said.
Imker said he will not vote for a property tax increase nor will he vote to use any of the city’s reserves to balance the budget. The city’s reserves should be used, for example, if there is a natural disaster or if citizens vote in a referendum to spend money on a one-time project.
“I will not vote to raise taxes because I know we can get the job done without it,” Imker said.
The city should place a priority on attracting more businesses to the city’s industrial park, which will in turn provide employees who will eat here and shop here, Imker said.
One citizen worried that the new mega shopping center just across the Fayette-Coweta border off Ga. Highway 54 and Fischer Road would result in a loss of businesses in the city.
Imker replied that he was glad that shopping center was going there instead of Peachtree City.
“I don’t care about us getting that revenue,” Imker said. “Peachtree City doesn’t need that revenue just to bring all those people into Peachtree City.”
Imker also pointed out that the city gets more than $700,000 a year in recreation fees.
“That’s not bad: pay to play,” Imker said. He also noted that the city’s EMS unit bills $400,000 a year in ambulance fees from transporting citizens to area hospitals.
Imker also took suggestions and criticisms from citizens at the meeting. Among the more notable were:
• Coweta County uses inmate labor for street repair; perhaps the city could do the same. Peachtree City already uses defendants from municipal court who are sentenced to community service for cart path cleanup and staffing at recycling facilities. It was suggested that the defendants wouldn’t be skilled enough to handle road paving.
• Young offenders should be required to clean up the messes they leave behind, to pick up litter and perform simple mowing and trimming.
• The city should sell its marketable property, which includes a few acres along Ga. Highway 54 West at the entrance to the Wynnmeade subdivision.
• Using furlough days to cover additional budget gaps.
• Transition the employee retirement program from a defined benefit pension to 401(k) accounts.
• Develop a plan for making future budget cuts based on reductions in the city’s sales and property taxes.
• The city needs to do a better job providing information on the transportation SPLOST expenditures and should also put that information on its website.