‘Uncompromised’ council to slap you with another big tax increase

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There is no moment of silent reflection, prayer, or Pledge of Allegiance before Peachtree City budget workshop meetings, but we could use them.

The city government’s budget vision is to keep on talking and keep on taxing. The Interim City Manager, Justin Strickland, listed the council’s six adopted values: professionalism, accountability, teamwork, honesty, sustainability, and safety.

There are a couple of council members who might embrace those broad values, and there are a couple who appear to be working in the opposite direction.

Under professionalism, they write, “We will demonstrate knowledge and competence in our work, respect for others, and dedication to ethical behavior.” How about we grade the city council on this after they approve the millage rate? That’s fair.

Mayor Kim Learnard has already erred on many occasions on the “respect for others” part (see: https://thecitizen.com/2024/02/19/mayor-wants-her-way-heres-a-list-so-far/).

Under accountability, they write, “We will accept and expect personal responsibility for our words, decisions, and actions.” This one almost made me spit out my morning coffee.

Learnard has some serious accountability issues, so bad that she has her own taxpayer-funded internet propaganda program to dismiss the truth and throw others under the bus (see: https://thecitizen.com/2024/05/06/welcome-to-the-taxpayer-supported-mayor-kim-learnard-channel-all-kim-all-the-time/). You pay for the crew and equipment to create her video show folly in your tax bills.

The city council also presented five strategic pillars: safe family friendly community, active healthy community, attractive community, a thriving resilient business community, and a city organization that is innovative high performing and sustainable. The pillars are wonderfully broad, fluffy things that warm the hearts of voters during election campaigns yet say very little.

“Especially in future budget years, I really want decisions that we make to tie into at least one if not multiple of these strategic pillars with decision making that we that we have as the city and also tie back into that uncompromised excellent, the overarching vision,” Strickland said.

Look the other way, there’s nothing to see here

What about the fiduciary obligation to the taxpayers? Should that not be the primary value and the central pillar, the first consideration in every governmental decision?

The local government’s primary power is taxation. It is an awesome responsibility, and it can certainly be abused. When it is abused, we all lose.

Where is the vision or pillar on properly managing the finances and the council’s fiduciary obligations towards the taxpayers?

Strickland mentioned that the city government must have a “balanced budget.” State law requires a balanced budget, and local governments do not have a choice.

Over the last decade, the city has routinely balanced the budget by increasing expenses annually and complementing that move by raising taxes; hence, a balanced budget. The local governments “balance” their budgets by taking more money out of our wallets, and they rarely cut expenses.

The city has also been using a significant amount of fund balance in addition to revenue sources to create the “balance” in the budget. Diving into reserves is a definitive sign of a lack of foresight and unfocused budgeting.

(Note: the state legislature took some of the borrowed federal pandemic money and used it to offset property taxes in 2023. Your grandchildren will be paying that debt in future years, so be sure to thank them.)

Throwing them a little bone

Strickland, with prodding from council members who are under pressure, recommends a minuscule 0.06 mill reduction in ad valorem property taxes, which means they are just taking the cherry off the top of their tax increase cheesecake. It’s still a tax increase.

Let’s not forget that the city’s revenue projections generally fall substantially under the target, and it has over 50 percent in reserves currently.

The reserves are being used as an interest-bearing slush fund for whatever the city council decides to spend them on. I wish we could earn interest on our own money and use it for our families instead of the city using it.

The traditional millage rate history slide in the budget presentation is used to fool taxpayers into believing they are getting one heck of a deal on their FY 2025 tax increase.

Of course, property values are at an all-time high, and comparisons to past higher millage rates following the Great Recession when property values flattened or fell are deceptive. The bottom line is you are paying more in property taxes now than ever before.

The city manager is proposing $1,260,763 for new city staff positions (those costs will climb next year). The city will have over 400 full-time and part-time positions. Clearly, inflation does not impact the local government the way it impacts the private sector. They simply raise the taxes, and we are not offered a choice of whether to pay them or not.

Other funds out of your wallet

Stormwater utility increase alert: Watch out for the stormwater fees to go up in the future. The utility is projected to be almost $39,000 in the red.

The mayor’s new pickleball facility has now become a fiscal year 2025 priority (see: https://thecitizen.com/2022/09/19/mayor-pickle-ball-says-battery-way-park-bathrooms-can-wait-while-local-taxes-skyrocket/).

Tax increase alert: There will most likely be another facilities bond ($7.5 million) added to tax statements in the future.

Tax increase alert: In future years, the city is considering using the very expensive 911 Call Center service in-house instead of using the county service.

“Uncompromised excellence”

Some of the readers have been around long enough to recall the Peachtree City Development Authority corruption surrounding the tennis center. My predecessor in elected office thought it would be a great idea to put the tennis center under the charge of the development authority.

The development authority members demonstrated their ineptitude by pushing for a tennis center expansion that included indoor courts, a pro shop, and offices. The indoor courts ended up being reduced to covered courts, and the moisture on the surface made it a hazard every time it rained. The offices also flooded when it rained.

Spending on the tennis center expansion went out of control, over budget, and controversial, ending up in a multi-million dollar debacle that caused a funding deception dispute between the city government and the development authority. The tennis center’s management was no better. Poor decisions and improper financial dealings were standard.

The development authority’s only weapon was to go on a public relations defensive. They would rave about their case study in instigating catastrophe and began referring to the tennis center as a “world-class” tennis venue.

Yes, all the poor decisions and corruption were worth it because the tennis center was a world-class facility, they said. However, no one was buying what they were selling.

Stade Roland Garros, Wimbledon, USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, etc., are world-class tennis facilities. Our tennis center is a nice, well-appointed municipal tennis facility, and calling it “world-class” does not make poor decisions, faulty management, and financial corruption any more palatable.

The Learnard administration has taken a page from the now-defunct development authority. Learnard and Strickland like to use the phrase “uncompromised excellence” during budget discussions. Those of us who have resided in the city for 15 to 20 years have seen quite a bit of compromise. We have seen some substantial problems created, and others allowed to fester for years.

Every government decision costs taxpayers money. Responsible decision-making is crucial to our city’s well-being.

New roads, new cart paths, annexations leading to more residential development, flipping land formerly designated for light industrial and corporate headquarters to residential uses, new government facilities, and added employees all come at a significant cost to the taxpayers.

We have seen uncompromised spending and wonder what we are getting for it. For decades, Peachtree City used to be one of the most efficiently run cities in the nation, but the financial discipline of old had been compromised.

Here she goes, again

Speaking of poor decisions, Learnard made it abundantly clear in her recent State of the City speech that annexation and housing would be two priorities for council in the coming year, zeroing in on what she termed “the lack of affordable housing for young people in Peachtree City and Fayette County,” (see: https://thecitizen.com/2024/01/15/mayor-learnards-message-to-residents-she-will-push-for-annexation-and-affordable-housing/).

Let’s challenge Learnard’s logic.

When the city keeps expanding its boundaries, it also expands its service area, increasing costs, which results in significant tax increases (and generally reduced service levels, too, across the board).

For example, annexations to the south created the need for a brand new fire station, new equipment, and three new shifts of 24/7 firefighters and EMTs, which cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The engines, ambulances, and equipment must be regularly replaced, costing millions of dollars more. The fire station must be maintained in perpetuity. Training and preparedness cost around $80,000 per fire staff member. The fire staff receives benefits and a nice pension plan at taxpayer expense, costing millions more.

The same extension of services like police, public works, and all the other city services also costs a lot more due to annexation. Learnard wants to continue this foolish practice.

Now, if the mayor’s new affordable houses are not valued at around $550,000 each, they are getting more in city services than they are paying for, which means the rest of us cover the balance through tax increases. Likewise, those “young people” cannot afford the houses based on the land value and cost of construction in Peachtree City, and they certainly cannot afford the increases in taxes.

Learnard is a fan of socialized medicine and socialized housing, but most in Peachtree City oppose it. She has become an agent of the real estate developers, stating that her form of change is coming whether we like it or not, and we have to pay for that change.

Ask Learnard why she keeps pushing back on increasing the Low Income Senior Homestead Exemption for citizens who have lived here for decades. She is currently taxing them out of the city.

One who is not ‘tax and spend’ happy

In my interview with Council Member Suzanne Brown, I asked, “Are there any fiscal conservative practices or principles within the city’s budgeting process?”

Council Member Brown’s response was honest and blunt, “Up to this point, I have not seen any fiscal conservative practices from the city government,” (see: https://thecitizen.com/2024/06/21/council-member-brown-sees-no-move-toward-cutting-expenses-or-taxes-for-peachtree-city/).

I asked, “Has the city council and staff discussed how to stem the tide of the consistent increases in local taxes?” Again, Council Member Brown’s reply was simply, “No.”

Learnard admitted, “Our department heads initially had more money in the budget and more staff positions,” but she wanted us to be thankful for the “slight mileage rate rollback,” a token gesture. Learnard’s point was to be happy she did not hit you with an even bigger tax hammer.

Obvious: taxpayers are not a priority

Council Member Brown is the only member of the city council asking for a full rollback. Council Member Clint Holland timidly hinted that he is interested in other options. The remaining members say full speed ahead with whatever the city manager suggests.

The city manager wants more spending, more employees, and more facilities and did not point out a single area where the city has built efficiencies or reduced spending. They are not even trying, and some of the spending is outright ridiculous. In the budget workshop meeting, Learnard said, “I support this 100%, and I really appreciate it, Justin; thank you.”

Learnard stated that she does not think it is necessary for the department directors to defend their budgets in the public forum for the edification of the citizens. Whatever the city manager says, and he provided little in the way of details, is sufficient for the mayor.

I predict that we are in for roughly another 13% increase over last year. Truly, there is no incentive for the government (the ones with guns, courts, and jails) to spend less or innovate. The government always gets its money, and it’s you, the insignificant taxpayers, who have to figure out how to keep coming up with the cash to cover the “uncompromised” tax increases.

Tell the city council what you think. You can email them at council@peachtree-city.org.

[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.]

4 COMMENTS

  1. While Mr. Brown’s commentary may be accurate, he might realize that he will lose readers when they are presented with a dissertation of this length. Perhaps he is paid by the word. If not, I have a handy paperback, Get To The Point, published way back in 1989, that he might find useful.

  2. It sounds like the way things are going, the Council, instead of putting forth the “6 adopted values, could have just gone with The Bubble is Magic, pat each other on the back, Kim can additionally pat Laura on the head, and call it a day.

  3. Thank you again for your insight on everything Mr. Brown. We are so thankful that Suzanne Brown was elected to the council and I thank her. The huge disappointment has been Ms. Johnson. We were so happy when she won because we thought, finally a council to keep Learnard in check but Johnson has proven to be a disappointment. It is unbelievable how much our taxes have gone up. We felt so lucky when we moved here in 2018 but the joy is slowly disappearing because of the taxes that keep getting higher and higher. We can’t wait for the day when big bully Learnard is out of office. Hopefully PTC residents have seen the light. Glad I didn’t voter for her but I’m still paying the price…..

    • Agreed, hoping a more suitable and stable mayor will be elected to better serve the municipality and residents of PTC.

      Also, in shock of Ms. Johnson’s disappointing tenure so far. I was so excited for a different, change agent that shared my values and ideas for our town. Did not at all foresee another addition on Learnard’s council leash.