The purpose of this open letter is to express some of my thoughts on several issues that have gotten a lot of publicity lately. I have seen many comments both in the paper and on social media concerning numerous important topics that range from police and fire protection to the Lake Thomaston project. I’d like to hopefully provide some thoughts that will help people understand things a little better.
Most of what has been said about the new Lake Thomaston project seems to center around the fact that there is not enough money to both protect the public and improve and develop parks. Second, I have seen and heard a great deal of misinformation. Last, I have heard it said a number of times that we on the City Council do not care. I would like for people to know that all of us on the council do care. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to do this job if they didn’t care. We don’t do this job for the $204 pay check every month. I ran for this job in 2004 because I saw what the Mayor, Council and the City Manager had done and I supported the kind of vision they had.
That same vision has gotten us to this point down the road and we should ask: Are we better? I say yes we are, but check for yourself. Here are the facts.
Despite the loss of 5,000 to 7,000 jobs:
* We have low property taxes in the city. Our city millage rate is lower now than it was in 2004. Your county and school taxes may be higher, but your city property taxes are lower unless the assessed value of your property has gone up.
* We have low electric rates – See the Georgia Public Service Commission Residential Rate Survey or go to Georgia Power’s public site and see what your bill would be with Ga. Power compared to a city bill. On the commercial side, I am told that 4 of 5 businesses are the same or lower.
* We have the Greatest Generation Park and we are headed to better parks in the future. Yes, we are spending more on parks but it must be remembered that we have just taken over two of our city parks (Weaver in 2014 and Park Street a few years before) that had fallen into disrepair. This time next year you will see them being well cared for. The Greatest Generation Park has far exceeded most people’s expectations. I feel Lake Thomaston will be a completely new and exciting opportunity, not only for city but for county residents and visitors from out of town.
* We have smaller government: If we hadn’t cared, then in 2000 when the mills closed we would have taken the easy and typical path that government often takes; we would have done little. Instead, we responded to the closing of the mills and began to cut costs. If we had continued on course, we would currently need an additional $1.5 million to $2 million a year in our budget to operate. Instead, we made government smaller so that Total Expenditures in 2013 are less than they were in 2004 and the millage rate is lower than when Hays took office in 2004.
In addition to keeping costs down we have also built reserves as recommended by our CPA firm. Reserves are needed over time to do things like creating a financial standing that allowed us to refinance our debt at lower rates and save $80K a year. Those reserves also allowed us to put down money that led to GEFA (Georgia Environmental Finance Authority) loans of funding at a lower interest rate with substantial loan forgiveness.
What are the city’s priorities?
This is an issue of primary concern that we should always be reviewing to consider how we could provide the best public safety and attract the best candidates for employees. Regardless of the fact that we are ahead of many cities and the national average as far as staffing, I am not as concerned about them as I am about us. Public safety is a top priority for all of us. We can and will provide superior policing and fire protection. We are committed to public safety as a council and we take this responsibility very seriously.
Jobs and Industry:
We all, city and county, contribute to the effort to attract industry. The city continues to repair and upgrade our infrastructure which is important to attracting industry and to do things to improve the quality of life, like the parks. The Industrial Development Authority is the agency primarily charged with efforts to recruit industry and does what it can for our existing industry and businesses that have supported our community all these years. IDA Director, Kyle Fletcher, along with the IDA board are continually making the effort to do these things as well as maintaining contacts with Georgia Industry and Trade. But in the end it comes down to money and the options that money can afford. Our governments, city and county, should return to the dedication of a mil of tax to fund the IDA’s efforts. That is how you would grow the effort to bring new jobs to Thomaston and Upson County.
The City continues to improve infrastructure through repair and replacement of water and sewer. Just to let you know, we have:
99 miles of electric lines and 4 substations
60 miles of streets and 31 miles of sidewalks
80 miles of water lines, a water filter plant, 8 water tanks
67 miles of sewer lines and 2 treatment plants
When all that is added up it totals 337 miles of infrastructure.
So you ask if we have all of this why do we raise utility rates or ever propose a tax increase? The answer is because costs do rise over time and if you do not pass that cost along at some point, your savings will dry up and you will have to raise taxes more. Our utility funds are the businesses we run to provide services for our citizens and to provide revenue to cover the cost of services that are the very reasons people choose to live in a city.
I feel we are as open as anyone. We have public budget hearings over four meetings, some at lunch and some in the evening to try to accommodate schedules. Public and press are always invited. Over those days, we go through the entire budget, not necessarily in detail, but we have the detailed budget documents always available to the public. Also, the City Manager, the Mayor, and several of our council members make numerous talks during the year to various clubs and community groups and city hall always has an open-door policy to its citizens. And lastly, we put city news and information in our utility bills (“The Bugle”) that goes out to all our customers. I hope in the future we can have one or two public meetings during the year to talk about the “State of the City” and give citizens the ability to hear more information about the city and to ask questions.
All of these good things have come together because we do care and because we did the difficult work of growing our government smaller. These good things have come in large part because of the vision of Mayor Arnold and our City Manager, Patrick Comiskey, and the support of the council, as well as the vision of former Mayor Sam Brewton and councils before us.
We will never be where we want to be, but we have to think about a lot of things at one time. Police and fire protection, water and sewer and roads, taxes, utility rates, parks, and joint projects are just some of the balls we juggle. We do need to take a long hard look at where our staffing levels are with both police and fire and how to attract the best personnel. Additionally, we need to continue to support the IDA and their efforts to attract new industry and employers to town. We need to continue the very important work of supporting and doing what we can for our existing industry and businesses.
Some people say that we are a welfare community. Some say we can’t do both – improve and develop parks and have adequate police and fire protection. That is simply not true. The planning and savings over the years make this possible. Some people have told me we are just a town of older people and we don’t need Lake Thomaston. But I see Thomaston and Upson County as more than that. I want the IDA to get that next great industry that will employ another 200-300 people. I want a future for this town.
But if all you want is to give up, bunker in, and reduce taxes and utility fees and spend our savings, then I am afraid you may have already given up. I am not in that group and the council is not in that group. We want more for this town; we want a future for this town. A future of good and improved infrastructure, improved roads, beautiful parks and murals as well as good, well-staffed police and fire and an IDA properly funded to be able to make the best effort to attract industry.
Your City Council will continue to work on the important things we need and continue to work on how we can improve Thomaston and serve the citizens of Thomaston because of one overriding reason – WE DO CARE.
Doug Head is Mayor Pro Tem of Thomaston.