Wrens taxes likely to double
By Parish Howard
Wrens City Administrator Arty Thrift sees no way around the city having to double its millage rate, effectively doubling property taxes for citizens and businesses this fall.
For the last several weeks Thrift and Mayor Lester Hadden have been visiting some of the city’s industries, who shoulder some of its biggest tax bills, to prepare them for this inevitability.
“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to raise taxes,” Thrift said, “and it’s going to be a substantial raise. I am expecting taxes to at least double. We have a difficult situation on our hands now and it isn’t pleasant. In the future, it could get worse. I hope not. Losing a major industry like Mestek doesn’t make anything easier.”
Thrift said the raise in taxes will hit area businesses the hardest.
In 2008, one Wrens-based industry paid more than $40,000 in taxes.
The city’s millage rate, which is currently around 11 mills, Thrift said Monday, could go as high 21 mills by this fall.
The city has already begun taking steps to reduce its expenses, but without raising taxes, Thrift said, a balanced budget is impossible, and the city’s $8 million-plus in debts will continue to grow.
Thrift joined the city as its administrator about a year ago.
“About six months ago we began to become aware of the extent of the problems the city faces,” Thrift said. “There are some severe budget deficits.”
After reviewing city audit records going back to 2005, Thrift said it looks as if the city has not had a truly balanced budget in that time.
“There should have been red flags going off everywhere,” Thrift said. “This is a serious problem. We’re looking at a trainwreck.”
What he found is that the city has been shorting its gas provider but has been using profits from that department to pay expenses associated with running the municipality.
In July the city received a letter from the Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia (MGAG) detailing the circumstances that led to the current debt and asking the city to come up with a plan to address the city’s past due balance.
“The city’s past due balance is significant and began shortly after the city joined the Gas Authority in 2005,” wrote Arthur C. Corbin, president and CEO of MGAG. “We have been patient in allowing the city to attempt to make up this deficit over the past four years. However, rather than making up the deficit, the city has allowed the balance to grow from around $500,000 to its current level of $3.6 million.
“It appears the city ignored the financial impact of the loss of two key industrial customers, and continued to rely too heavily on gas system revenues to operate general government, even to the point of transferring amounts well in excess of the income produced by the gas system.”
Corbin goes on to thank the city for the steps it has taken to reduce the debt, but says that the authority’s next step is for the city to pay the outstanding balance in full by Sept. 30.
“I think we’ve been paying everyone but the gas provider,” Thrift said.
What has been done
But, he went on to explain, that isn’t the real crux of the problem. As he sees it, the problem is much bigger and involves all of the city’s operations, their costs and its total revenues.
City revenues are broken into two categories, general fund revenue and enterprise fund revenues, such as water funds and gas funds.
The general fund is mostly tax driven and is largely funded by property and sales taxes. These general funds provide for a city’s fire and police departments, public works, building and grounds, administration, municipal court, etc.
The enterprise funds, like the water and gas funds, are run like small businesses. They sell services and then bill and collect for those services.
“These funds should stand on their own,” Thrift said. “In Wrens, the gas fund does stand on its own and the water fund is coming close, but is coming up short.
“What a lot of cities do is use the profits from a fund, like say our gas fund, to help pay for some general fund expenses. And this is OK because in a small operation like ours, there is some overlap. We have buildings and grounds people who use their time to read meters or do work on city service lines. The secretaries up front collect for services and handle some of the billing and paperwork.
“Wrens has always relied on its gas revenue more than it should,” Thrift said. “There was a time when the city’s gas service was a lot more profitable than it is today.”
While the gas fund itself is profitable, its profits simply are not enough to support the rest of the city’s departments.
“Some of the bigger pressure on us is a matter of debt,” Thrift said. “There is substantial debt in our water fund. If we didn’t have so much, it would be a profitable enterprise.”
The city’s water fund currently owes $4.2 million in principal balance on water projects alone. The annual debt service on this is $420,000.
“This is all good debt,” Thrift explained. “It was for projects that had to be done like tank renovations, wells, water line extensions and the new waste water treatment expansion.”
The plant, which Wrens expanded under an EPD consent order to address problems with its sewer system, was an $8 million project. The city received $6 million in grants but had to borrow $2 million in matching funds.
“It appears that the interest on these debts are getting paid,” Thrift said.
In the last four years the city has also had to provide matching portions to grants that have provided for the new veterans’ park. It also secured a local loan to begin work on the gym at Rabun Park. The loan, the city planned, should be repaid by SPLOST funds. However, with the depressed economic climate, those funds are coming in slower than anticipated.
“We have to contain this,” Thrift said. “We can’t just keep shedding money in huge boat loads.”
When they first became aware of the problems they started making cuts. This past winter the city cut or laid off four positions and had five people leave whose positions it chose not to refill.
“One fulltime position we filled with part-time help, the rest we just found moved the work around to other positions,” Thrift said. “These cuts were across the board in all departments.”
In the last eight months the city has lost its gas superintendent, assistant gas superintendent, an assistant fire chief, a dispatcher, two recreation department positions, one building and grounds employee and another position from the police department.
In its August meeting the council voted to increase water and sewer rates by 18 percent. The change will go into effect in the September cycle for October billing.
According to Thrift, the increase should help cover the city’s $142,000 annual shortfall in the water/sewer fund.
In the same meeting the city voted to place nine vehicles and equipment up for bid/auction in an effort to cut expenses associated with insurance, maintenance, etc.
“We’re attempting to do what we can to take costs down,” Thrift said.
The city has partnered with the Family Y to run the city’s new recreation facility and all of its programs.
“We are sharing the expenses,” Thrift said, “as well as the maintenance work on the fields and grounds. They develop the programs and build the rec and fitness business out there. As it grows, we hope to see it help cover most or possibly all of its own expenses.”
In the 2009 budget the city anticipated the recreation department would cost between $160,000 and $170,000 to operate.
“With the Family Y we want to see a drop in that expense and still provide programs for the youth and adults of our area,” Hadden said.
The city has also worked to bid out other services such as insurance.
“We’re looking for savings in every corner,” Thrift said.
The city no longer pays 100 percent of its employees insurance. It now requires its people to pay 15 percent of the cost.
Just last week, in a called meeting, the city voted to lay off four more employees to cut expenses.
“We wish we didn’t have to do this,” Thrift said. “We wish there was a way to keep everyone on, but we have to cut our expenses.”
The city cut one position from building and grounds, two from public works and one from the gas department.
“We also have 14 or 15 employees who are taking one furlough day a month,” Thrift said. “This includes our fire chief, police chief, all department heads and myself.”
Mayor Hadden said that the city is trying to keep its emergency services personnel fully staffed.
“We can’t cut police or fire protection,” Hadden said. “We can stand to see the grass a little higher as long as when the alarms go off we have emergency people on hand to do their jobs.”
Mayor Hadden said city officials have met with the area’s congressmen and local representatives to make them aware of the city’s situation and that they will be called on for assistance.
“We’re doing little things, but it’s not going to be enough,” Hadden said.
Taxes are going to have to go up, Thrift added.
“This is being done strictly to balance the budget,” Thrift said. “For years, that wasn’t done. Instead they just shorted the gas company. That’s how we got $3.6 million in arrears. We can’t keep doing that. Now we have to come up with a plan to address this debt. How we are going to fund this plan, that’s where the rubber meets the road.”
Hadden agreed that he does not like the idea of higher taxes, but sees no way around it.
“We’re all in this together,” Hadden said. “I am a property owner, too, and I will feel this tax increase just like everyone else.”
Officers seize thousands in cash and drugs
By Faye Ellison
A Louisville man was charged by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office with two counts of possession with intent to distribute, after area residents complained of his alleged drug activity.
Sylvester Woods, 29, was arrested and charged with possession of suspected crack cocaine and marijuana with intent to distribute after a search warrant was executed at his rental home located at 1042 Palmer Street in Wrens Quarters on July 28. At the time, Woods was on probation with similar charges according to Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Clark Hiebert.
Hiebert said profits from Woods’ drug deals and a vehicle were also confiscated from several locations and his rented home.
“At the time of arrest, Sylvester Woods had in his possession or within his bedroom $1,911 in U.S. currency,” Hiebert stated. “He said we could search his home. He said there was nothing there.”
While searching, law enforcement also located less than an ounce of suspected crack cocaine and several bags of marijuana from within his residence packaged to be sold.
On July 30, law enforcement seized a 1995 Chevrolet Suburban after receiving a warrant because the purchase of the vehicle came from drug proceeds.
Hiebert then said they seized $9,003.99 from another location that was property of Woods. Hiebert said information has also led to more seizures.
“Later on July 31, officers learned that Woods had more drugs in a storage building rental beside Movies To Go,” he said. “We seized seven ounces of marijuana and $1,416.87 from the storage unit.”
Hiebert said both charges that Woods faces are felonies. Hiebert also divulged that if Woods had possession of more than 28 grams of suspected crack cocaine, he would have been charged with trafficking.
“Woods had been under investigation for some time,” Hiebert said. “A number of concerned citizens complained about the drug trafficking in the area. These citizens tell us who it is, where it is and where they are dealing out of.”
Hiebert said Woods also acknowledged that he had been selling drugs for the last four years. He said his profits over the last two and a half years exceeded $50,000, according to Hiebert.
Logs spilled in Wrens wreck
An early morning wreck left three injured and three lanes of traffic closed on Monday.
According to Sgt. Young with the Swainsboro Georgia State Patrol Office, at 9:05 a.m. Monday, Aug. 24, a 1993 Ford F-150 pulling from a private drive at Meadowview Trailer Park north of Wrens traveled into the path of an oncoming truck carrying logs. The Ford was being driven by Richard Nelson, 45, of Louisville.
“He said the brakes on his truck failed and caused him to travel into the path of the oncoming truck,” Sgt. Young said.
The 1990 white GMC truck carrying the logs was being driven by Alfred Nelson, 44, of Wrens and belonged to Nelson Trucking. When the two vehicles collided, it caused the truck driven by Alfred to flip over onto its left side, and the truck driven by Richard to careen into a ditch.
The large logs blocked three lanes of traffic, with the Wrens Police Department and Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office directing traffic until sometime after noon when all the logs and both vehicles were removed from the roadway.
Also riding with Alfred was Ivester Sims, 41, of Wrens. All three men suffered injuries, with Richard being transported to the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Sims to Jefferson Hospital, and Sgt. Young said Alfred would take himself to the hospital.
“There was also damage to property of Joe Jenkins,” Sgt. Young said. “It damaged some appliances he had out front for sale. About three logs rolled over there and caused the damage.”
Sgt. Young said Richard is being charged with failure to yield to right of way.
County contracts with Gold Cross
By Carol McLeod
In a called meeting Monday, Aug. 24, the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners voted to sign a contract with Gold Cross Ambulance to provide ambulance service in the county.
The commissioners had previously voted in a regular meeting held Tuesday, Aug. 11, to terminate its ambulance service contract with Rural Metro, a company that had held such contracts with the county since 1995. According to the contract, either party could give a 90-day notice of termination with or without cause.
The reason stated by the county for the termination with Rural Metro was the company’s failure to provide new ambulances in the county within a stipulated 120 days of the contract renewal, which was in March.
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Rural Metro reportedly had problems obtaining vehicles from General Motors.
During the regular meeting, several commissioners stated there had been no requirement in the contract that the vehicles had to come from GM.
At the called meeting, Jefferson County Administrator Paul Bryan told commissioners representatives of Gold Cross Ambulance, an Augusta company, had agreed to basically the same contract the county had with Rural Metro.
“The essence of the contract, money and time, is the same,” Bryan said. The contract will go into effect Oct. 1, he said.
In order to complete the requirements of the contract with Rural Metro, the county will pay the company through Wednesday, Sept. 30, at midnight. At that time, the contract with Gold Cross will go into effect.
The commissioners discussed the contract with Gold Cross. The amount of money to be paid is the same as that specified in the contract with Rural Metro.
The first contract period begins Oct. 1 and lasts through April 30, 2010, at a cost to the county of $36,696 a month. There are four annual renewals with the first beginning May 1, 2010, and going through April 30, 2011, at $37,797 a month.
The second renewal, from May 1, 2011, through April 30, 2012, will be at a cost of $38,931 a month.
The third renewal, from May 1, 2012, through April 30, 2013, will be at a cost of $40,099 a month.
The fourth renewal, from May 1, 2013, through April 30, 2014, will be at a cost of $41,302 a month.
Gold Cross has agreed to provide not less than four licensed ambulances that meet or exceed vehicle requirements, that two 2009 ambulances will go into service in the county when the contract begins and that if any of the four ambulances is out of service for 24 hours Gold Cross will assign another ambulance from its fleet to Jefferson County.
The provision about the 2009 ambulances was not in the contract at the time of the meeting. Commissioner Johnny Davis questioned the administrator about this, saying he wanted the contract to specify the agreement about having the ambulances.
Bryan left the meeting and returned within 30 minutes with the provision added.
“They’ve agreed to put it in the contract,” he told the commissioners.
The board approved the contract.