The City of Thomaston is beginning a series of public hearings on the 2016 budget today at noon in the council meeting room of Thomaston-Upson Government Complex on East Lee Street. The General Fund Budget is proposed to be $7,409,925, a reduction of $1,060,000 from the 2015 budget. The Electric Fund is proposed to be $15,245,407, while the Water and Sewer Fund is proposed at $7,553,053.
For residents and business owners in the city, the good news is that the city is not considering a tax increase, nor an increase in electricity rates. However, water and sewer rate increases are expected to be approved. The water increase would be 43 cents per 1,000 gallons, and the sewer increase would be 35 cents per 1,000 gallons. For a household which uses 5,000 gallons a month, the total increase would be around $3.90.
But, warns City Manager Patrick Comiskey, the city needs to come up with new revenue or get their current tax revenue up because the tax digest continues to shrink.
The Thomaston City Council held a work session on December 7 to go over the proposed budget. Newly sworn in City Councilman Ryan Tucker, as well as councilmembers-elect LaKeiitha Reevs and Jeff Middlebrooks, along with mayor-elect J. D. Stallings, attended the meeting and Comiskey took time to explains each part of the budget process to the newly elected members. With the exception of Tucker, the newly-elected members will not take office until January 1, 2016, and will not vote on the new budget.
The proposed budget for Electricity is $15,245,407. Comiskey began the session by discussing the cost of electricity to the city, which is a member of and receives its power from the Municipal Electric Association of Georgia (MEAG).
“In the last decade, the cost of electricity has grown dramatically,” Comiskey said. “From 2005 to last year, our cost of electricity grew basically about 50 percent over the last decade. Meanwhile, our billing to our customers only grew roughly 28 to 29 percent. In essence, we’ve absorbed about a million dollars worth of electric costs increases over the last decade. The money we were making 10 years ago is not the money we are making today. We are pulling in less money versus expenses, and we never passed on all those expenses.
“One of the things that we’ve heard in the community is, ‘Our bills have gone up.’ They haven’t gone up as much as our bills that we pay to purchase the electricity,” Comiskey stated. “As a result, our margins are smaller, which means we have less money to work with than we had 10 years ago with the electric utility.”
Mayor Pro Tem Doug Head put the issue of electrical revenue into context.
“There has been a lot of conversation about the utility rates and can you lower them. The thing that is the challenge at that point is that we aren’t passing along even close to what the increases have been. But in addition to that, this electric fund, along with taxes, is the heart of the body. It is able to pay the expenses to provide the services that we’ve got. It supports the water utility, and all the other expenses. In 2014, we transferred $1,239,000 out of the electric fund. That is how much blood this heart is pumping to cover expenses for all the other services we provide.”
Reeves and Middlebrooks still expressed concern about those in their districts who are not always able to pay a high utility bill. Comiskey replied that the city works with people every month who are having problems paying their bills. He added that they are also looking into working out a budget program where, based on their past history, customers would be given a set price to pay every month in order to be able to maintain their services.
Water and Sewer
The proposed budget for Water and Sewer is $7,553,053. As a overview, Comiskey noted that water usage in the city declined every year between 2007 and 2013.
“The first two years, our biggest single customer was Martha Mills, and they shut down,” Comiskey said. “Yamaha shut down. We lost about 55 percent of our industrial users over two years. Then the county started putting in wells, and we lost some more there.
“People tend to use the same amount of water. Historically, people are using a little more electricity each year. That’s why through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, if you had an electric utility, you automatically had growth and revenue. That’s no longer the case. But with water, people always use about the same amount each year, so the only chance you have to get more revenue is with new customers coming in, or with price increases. We’ve had the inverse – we’ve lost 37 percent of our customers over that time, and our revenue has gone down. “
Mayor Arnold added that the city has had to increase rates, but has tried to so gently.
“We have incrementally worked on increasing water and sewer for 15 years,” he said. “We’ve had to, because we cannot justifiably sap the electric department for more and more money to subsidize water and sewer, and if you don’t keep bumping your water and sewer rates,that’s exactly what will happen.”
Comiskey said since 2007, the amount of water usage has dropped 39 percent (300 million gallons) because of the loss of customers, yet the cost of the chemicals and other items needed to keep the water safe has continually increased in price.
Victor Cozart, the Project Manager with Severn Trent, the company contracted by the city to run the water and sewer department, said the main increase in the budget of $175,000 is for the purchase and installation of a SCADA system which would greatly automate the system. Cozart noted that many of the current water system employees are nearing retirement age, and water and sewer work is not attracting younger workers to replace those retiring. He said the SCADA system will automatically keep track of everything at the water and sewer plants, and if something goes wrong, will send out an alert to the system operator. Cozart estimated that the system could conceivably pay for itself within two years with personnel retiring and by not having to replace those personnel.
Comiskey stated with the proposed increase in water and sewer rates, with a household average 5,000 gallons a month, the increase would be $3.90. The increase is projected to provide $166,000 for water and $107,000 for sewer in revenue gain.
Other budget items include Sanitation at $1,165,848; Law Enforcement at $218,400; and Community Development at $200,000.
Besides the hearing today, other hearings scheduled are as follows:
• Wednesday, December 16, 5 p.m.
• Tuesday, December 22, 5 p.m.
• Monday, December 28, Noon
• Monday, December 28, 12:30 p.m. There will be a special called meeting to set the water and sewer rates.
• Thursday, December 31, Noon. The final Public Hearing and Budget Adoption.
A copy of the budget is available for public view in the city manager’s office located on the second floor of the Thomaston-Upson Government Complex at 106 E. Lee Street.
Anyone with a need for a reasonable accommodation in order to participate in the budget review process may contact the city manager at 706-647-4242.
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.