Council member Brown sees no move toward cutting expenses or taxes for Peachtree City

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It’s budget season, and only the Board of Education has decided to impose a tax increase for fiscal year 2025 so far. As the cost of living rises, local governments are under pressure to break the chain of repetitive tax increases.

I asked eight questions to Peachtree City’s Interim City Manager, Justin Strickland, and new Council Member Suzanne Brown (no relation).

Strickland is tasked with bringing a budget proposal to the city council. Brown approaches her first city budget debate as a former conservative citizen activist turned elected official. Both were promised that their responses would appear verbatim.

Strickland chose not to respond to the questions at this time, offering only budget scheduling information. He did promise to reply at a later date.

Suzanne Brown is a budget novice, sorting through hundreds of pages of line items, looking for ways to resist the “tax increases as usual” mentality at City Hall.

Council Member Suzanne Brown responds

STEVE BROWN: Spending is at an all-time high, and city taxation is also at an all-time high. Has the city government done anything to cut expenses? If yes, what?

COUNCIL MEMBER BROWN: The newly proposed FY2025 budget is $52,463,597, an increase of about $6,000,000.

Up to this point I don’t know if there have been any attempts to cut any expenses to keep the budget in line with the current FY2024 budget. I would like to see a full rollback so there is no tax increase for FY2025.

I am suggesting that Department Heads should be tasked with reducing their proposed budget by at least 5% (2% from Public Safety Departments). The surplus from last year should be an indicator that revenue collections are exceeding our projections. We should make every effort to make sure our projections are more accurate.

The City Council should set the example, which means a reduction in continuing education expenses, travel expenses, and not having more expensive out-of-town retreats.

I personally believe we are holding too much funding in reserves. We need to analyze the appropriate levels without placing a burden on the taxpayers. That would aid us in rolling back our millage rate.

We need to take a serious look at a hiring freeze on all non-public safety positions.

STEVE BROWN: Have the levels of city services increased with the consistent increases in city taxes? If so, can you provide some examples?

COUNCIL MEMBER BROWN: Obviously, the cost of goods and services purchased by the city has increased over time. However, that is not an indicator of increased service levels.

The question I have is, “Can staff tell me if the consistent increases in taxes are driven by the addition of more employees and equipment or by elevating levels of service to our constituents?”

I would hope that increases in staff and equipment would provide an increase in service levels. But, that needs to be proven.

STEVE BROWN: Is there any motivation from the city council to roll back the millage rate to prevent a tax increase for the fiscal year 2025?

COUNCIL MEMBER BROWN: Last year, as a citizen, I spoke at the FY2024 Budget Public Hearing to say they needed to roll back the millage rate. At the very least, there should have been a partial rollback. [Editor’s note: There was no rollback for FY2024.]

I cannot speak for the other council members, but I am willing to look at all projects proposed for FY2025 with the possibility of freezing the least essential ones until we have determined there is enough revenue available.

STEVE BROWN: Is the city government adding any new staff positions in the fiscal year 2025?

COUNCIL MEMBER BROWN: Fire and EMS staff are being added for the new station on the south side of the city. Hopefully, we will receive a federal grant to fund those new positions for the first three years.

I will confer with the City Manager on whether the other departments are adding employees. My position would be to freeze all non-public safety vacancies.

STEVE BROWN: There is a lot of animosity on local social media pages regarding the latest property assessment used for ad valorem taxes and the potential for another significant tax increase. What is the city government’s message for the disgruntled taxpayers?

COUNCIL MEMBER BROWN: No one was more angry than me about the 20.99% increase in the appraised valuation of my home for the 2022 Tax Year.

I have seen several social media comments and complaints about yet another property tax increase, and I cannot disagree with their sentiments.

People with lower incomes, especially senior citizens and young adults, do not have the means to cover continual property tax increases.

I can assure you that I see and hear your frustration. It would be beneficial for citizens to come to the Budget Public Hearings and speak out about the need for a millage rollback and the hardships you are experiencing.

STEVE BROWN: Has the current city council made any attempt to solicit feedback from the taxpayers on the city’s current spending?

COUNCIL MEMBER BROWN: Beyond the public hearings that are mandated by the state, I have not seen any attempts to solicit feedback. If anything, the city has made it more difficult for citizens to express themselves.

I would like to hear from the taxpayers themselves where they think we should be making cuts.

STEVE BROWN: At least four city council members campaigned as “conservatives.” Are there any fiscal conservative practices or principles within the city’s budgeting process?

COUNCIL MEMBER BROWN: Speaking for myself, I stand for small government, less regulation, and keeping taxes as low as possible. I will introduce some of the measures I have listed in my replies to your questions at our next meeting on the budget.

It takes three votes to approve any measure before the City Council. I will do my best to push for a full rollback and less government spending. And I would appreciate the citizens contacting my colleagues in support.

Up to this point, I have not seen any fiscal conservative practices from the city government.

STEVE BROWN: Has the city council and staff discussed how to stem the tide of the consistent increases in local taxes? If so, can you give us some insights?

COUNCIL MEMBER BROWN: No. Just a few weeks ago I attempted to get the entire City Council to agree to hold our next Council Retreat here in Peachtree City instead of having it in Suwanee, Georgia. If the City Council cannot reduce its spending and set a proper example, how can we expect our various departments to buy into cutting costs and building efficiencies?

What is the real reason a City Council would have an “out-of-town” retreat anyway?

We need to encourage Department Heads to make sure their salaried employees are showing up for work on time and staying late if necessary to get the job done. It’s not easy, but our staff need to be responsible. If they are not, we have other problems to solve.

Staff salaries are the largest portion of our budget, and it will take a lot of staff working efficiently to reduce our expenses and the need to raise taxes.

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City Manager Justin Strickland’s response to the questions is below.

STRICKLAND: Mr. Brown, thank you for your email. Staff and I are still in the process of preparing the proposed budget and workshop presentation. The budget will be presented to Council at our workshop on Tuesday, June 18th. I would encourage you to attend and I would be happy to respond to these questions after that workshop. Thanks.

I meant to add this [budget schedule] though, see below for the schedule of meetings. I will be working on your questions to have something to you after the Tuesday evening workshop.

Note: Council will have time in between the Proposed Budget and the Public Hearing to give their feedback, as they do not see the proposed budget until the same time it available to the public.

Tuesday, June 18 – Council Budget Workshop to review City Manager’s Proposed Budget

Thursday, July 11 – Hold Public Hearing on Proposed Budget and Capital Improvement Program (CIP)

Thursday, August 1 – Adoption of Operating Budget and Capital Improvement Program. Adopt Millage Rate

Thursday, August 15 – Adopt CVB [Convention and Visitors Bureau] and KPTCB [Keep Peachtree City Clean & Beautiful] Budgets

[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.]

9 COMMENTS

  1. PTC’s Adopted Budget for FY2022 was $41,204,376. The mayor is proposing to spend $52,463,597 next year, or 27.3% more than 3-4 years ago, and a whopping 12.9% increase over last year.

    If that doesn’t spark the mayor to lead some serious discussions of priorities and necessities in the city’s spending, why not? Managing PTC’s expenses is not so complex that we, or Council, should just blindly nod and pull out our wallets.

    High Five to Ms Brown for looking into the size of the city’s excessive Reserve (aka “Rainy Day Fund”) which has been running above 50% of regular city operating expenditures for years, and is proposed at 53.3% again for FY2025. The baseline recommended by the Government Finance Officers’ Association is 16.7% (two months).

    Curiously, the Proposed Budget for FY2023 (p. 10) shows a note: “Target Reserves (31% of Uses of Funds)”, which was repeatedly ignored for years. I saw no such policy statement in the Interim City Manager’s FY2025 Budget presentation, so when and why was it abandoned?

    We are bankrupt as a nation, with debt we will never be able to repay, and yet our President and Congress continue on with wasteful and non-sensical spending that is the root cause of runaway inflation. Let’s hope our Council digs deep into proposed budgets, as 12%+ spending increases cannot be sustainably funded by taxpayers.

  2. Why would anyone cuts taxes or spending if they had an appreciation for all of the facts associated with the complexity of City Government and all of its inherent duties and responsibilities? Something that Steve never fully appreciated as a member of any governing body or organization. Steve is once again clueless and an oxygen thief.

  3. For anyone who is interested, here are the proposed changes in personnel by department from FY 2024 to FY 2025:

    >Economic development: +1 FTE
    >Human resources: +1 FTE
    >Police: +6 FTE
    >Fire: +4 FTE / -2 part-time
    >Public works: -1 FTE main; -1 FTE 2017 SPLOST for cart paths; +4 FTE 2023 SPLOST for roads
    >Engineering: +1 FTE
    >Building maintenance: +1 FTE
    >Recreation: +1 FTE / -2 part time (I think this is just a consolidation of 2 PT to 1 FT, could be wrong).
    >Kedron: +2 part time (I think this is adding “floater” coverage, so more people, but same hours/costs).

    Overall: +17 FTE, -2 part time. 317 total FTE, 97 total part time.

    • The proposed budget itself also shows a small rollback of 0.06 mills from 6.043 to 5.983.

      I do agree with City personnel that it isn’t fair to directly compare the City millage rate to say Tyrone. Other jurisdictions pay County EMS (0.500 mills) and County Fire (3.070 mills except Fayetteville). That means a “fair” comparison of last year’s millage rate would be:

      >PTC: 6.043
      >Tyrone: 2.889 + 3.070 + 0.500 = 6.459
      >Fayetteville: 5.646 + 0.500 = 6.146
      >Brooks: 1.207 + 3.070 + 0.500 = 4.777
      >Unincorporated county: 3.070 (just fire; not sure if they pay separate EMS too).

      These ignore the county tax (4.034 mills); county 911 tax (0.210 mills); and school taxes (19.250 mills + 0.800 mills bond) that ALL property owners pay.

  4. Doug Tucker, Georgia law requires a “Public Hearing” to be held prior to adoption of the budget. That Public Hearing will be conducted during the July 11, City Council meeting. Speaking about the budget, the millage rate, your ad valorem taxes, or anything contained in the budget, will be permitted during that Public Hearing. It is a separate agenda item, citizens would not be speaking during the usual Public Comment portion of the agenda in the beginning of our meeting. Citizens would be invited to speak in favor of, or in opposition to, the budget.

  5. In the workplace there is a common principle in work avoidance. If anyone asks you to do something you tell them you need them to do something first.

    As a councilman saying you know there is an issue with affordability of surging taxes but you need people to attend a meeting first is textbook avoidance

  6. Good questions and good answers. Thank you Mr. Brown, Councilmember Brown, and Interim City Manager Strickland. Popping into my little one-pound brain are two things.

    First, the Council should rarely, if ever, have retreats. What are they retreating from? Us?

    Second, if a City constituent has something to say about the budget they must communicate that to the Council before and/or after the budget appears on City Council Meeting agendas. Once the budget appears on a Council Meeting Agenda, a constituent cannot discuss it at the Council meeting, making a bunch of hokum out of a July 11 Council meeting with a budget hearing on the agenda. The City precludes public comment on agenda items at Council meetings. It only makes sense if the Council doesn’t want to be bothered.

    The non-discussion agendas also make for interesting ordinance change readings. How legal are our proceedings toward meeting municipal statutory requirements? There is potential for our City Attorney to make a lot of money.

    • For (1), I don’t see an issue with an annual retreat. This is a common leadership practice and gives people the chance to build working relationships outside of their day-to-day roles. If it is more frequent than that, sure, I can see a problem. And I could see the point of having the retreat locally to save costs.

      For (2), the budget is an exception to that. The “no discussion of an item on the agenda” rule applies to public COMMENT, not to public HEARINGs. The two are different. For example, every zoning variance that comes before council gives a hearing opportunity for the public to discuss support/opposition for that, even though it is on the agenda. The budget process is explicitly a public hearing. State law is pretty clear. “…any persons wishing to be heard on the budget may appear.” See OCGA 36-81-5(f).

      Re: ordinance changes, nothing in state law requires any sort of public COMMENT period, though some actions do require public HEARINGs. If public comment isn’t a requirement, then the council can set whatever restrictions they want on it or even remove it entirely. Whether that’s wise or not is a separate question from whether it is legal or not.

      • And they do “set whatever restrictions they want on it.” Thank you blakey for the interpretations. I find “a public hearing, where the (legislative body, committee, council, court, etc.) members hear witnesses representing various viewpoints on the measure.” I thus stand by my previous statement “There is potential for our City Attorney to make a lot of money.” Changing law, like ordinances, is no small matter; due process (like integrity) is everything.

        The budget is what it is, I expect Mr. Salvatore to present a well-defined and executable budget. Like our public safety people, Mr. Salvatore does an excellent job.