My subject for this week’s opinion column completely changed when rumors began wafting around about there was over $10 million of unfunded infrastructure maintenance that was held in secret during the Special Purpose Local Option Sale Tax (SPLOST) referendum discussions and the recent approval of significant pay, bonus and pension increases for city employees.
Mayor Kim Learnard was able to reprioritize her pet project to the top of the SPLOST list at the last minute by hiding over $10 million of unfunded maintenance on existing infrastructure (see: https://thecitizen.com/2022/09/19/mayor-pickle-ball-says-battery-way-park-bathrooms-can-wait-while-local-taxes-skyrocket/).
Yes, things were so bad that the mayor and council felt compelled to hit us with a significant tax increase last year when many residents could least afford it and then asked us to vote for tens of millions of dollars in additional sales taxes (SPLOST) on the inflated groceries and goods we have to buy, and then new pickleball courts became a top priority because the mayor plays pickleball.
Now, the situation is even worse as the city is poised to announce that major existing infrastructure in need of repair was hidden from view so the mayor could squeeze in her new pet pickleball project.
No excuse for this behavior
I would like to hear from the citizens who were on the SPLOST Project Committee. City staff, Mayor Learnard, and council members were present at the committee meetings. Were the committee members who were given the fiduciary responsibility of prioritizing the crucial projects, creating a list that keeps our city in good repair with the most efficient use of funds, ever apprised by the city officials that specific critical projects were never included for review?
Learnard and Councilmen Mike King and Phil Prebor cannot claim ignorance. Learnard has 10 years of experience on the City Council with eight years each for King and Prebor. Each of them has “two-on-two” meetings behind closed doors with the city manager and department directors on a regular basis out of public view. There is no way they did not know about the missing infrastructure projects for SPLOST. If they do maintain ignorance, they need to resign.
Not every council member agrees with the backdoor meetings out of public view (see: https://thecitizen.com/2022/08/15/council-decision-making-should-be-done-as-meeting-agenda-items-councilman-destadio-says/).
More smoke and mirrors on the way
You will recall that Mayor Learnard shamelessly told the local citizens and the news media that the recent pay raises, bonuses, and pension increases “won’t cost taxpayers a cent.” Did she really think that anyone would believe such nonsense (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/04/10/mayor-misleads-about-cost-of-city-pay-raises/)? Now, she is going to march the city manager out to explain why we are going to be hit with another tax increase because of her poor decisions.
The City Manager Bob Curnow will be leading a budget workshop Tuesday, June 20, at 6:30 p.m. and be tasked with explaining: A) Why the critical unfunded infrastructure projects were not proposed for the SPLOST; B) Why unfunded infrastructure projects were never mentioned during the agenda item on approving across the board pay raises, bonuses, and pension increases and; C) Why yet another sizable tax increase is on the table following all the other tax increases and the recently approved SPLOST referendum giving the city government tens of millions of dollars.
Who is fighting for you?
At the last council meeting, one of the council candidates for the October-November election, Suzanne Brown (no relation), made the point well. She has a grasp of the issues, is the only one who attends all the meetings, and is one of the few who know in depth what is going on and is calling it out.
Here are some of Suzanne Brown’s comments to the council from the meeting on exposing the city’s controversy. “And you got to pick and choose what projects went into the SPLOST ‘wish list’ which got approved. But now it’s, ‘Oops. We need more than $10 million in maintenance and repairs that we didn’t do in the last several years,’ and it never got put into SPLOST?”
Suzanne Brown continued, “We have leaky roofs, mold issues, need an elevator in City Hall, and have countless big-ticket items for major repairs to buildings, vehicles, etc. that should have been on the five-year ‘maintenance and improvement plan.’”
She then got straight to the point, “A majority of this council prioritized the SPLOST list. Did you have knowledge of the maintenance program or lack thereof when you created that list and left off all these critical items that could have been incorporated into SPLOST? I’m trying to figure out exactly who is responsible for this negligence, incompetence, or malfeasance.”
Ms. Brown asked if we were being set up for another property tax increase for next year. There was only a blank stare from the mayor.
What can you do to make local government accountable?
Power is the crack cocaine of the government. Most elected officials have never experienced holding such control before. Once elevated as an elected leader, the power to spend other people’s money, build public monuments for yourself, and radically change the community on a whim is almost overwhelming.
Even more maddening is the elitist and aristocratic attitude of many elected officials, saying the tax increases do not amount to much, totally ignoring our widows, single moms, and families trying to make ends meet.
Hold your elected officials accountable. Remind yourself and the government officials that government works for the people, not the other way around.
Make sure to vote in the October-November city council election. Pay attention to the candidates and their positions (or lack thereof) on vital issues.
The real estate development lobby and Mayor Learnard are desperately trying to find a candidate to oppose Suzanne Brown because she is actively involved and always stands on the side of the taxpaying citizens. Good luck with that.
The citizens keep their government in check. It’s up to you.
[Brown is a former mayor of Peachtree City and served two terms on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners. You can read all his columns by clicking on his photo below.]