Citizens respond to Wrens taxes
By Parish Howard
More than 40 citizens of Wrens came before their elected councilmen last week looking for answers as to why the city is more than $8 million in debt and what the city is doing about it.
Before the regularly scheduled council meeting, the city held a town hall meeting in which Administrator Arty Thrift explained how the debt has accumulated, partly through Environmental Protection Division required water system improvements ($4.2 million) and also through $3.6 million in back debt to the city’s gas provider, the Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia (MGAG).
Thrift explained that since 2005 the city has been shorting MGAG and using gas revenue funds to shore up other city expenses.
He went on to list all of the things the city is doing to try to minimize its expenses and balance its budget so that it will no longer be as dependent on gas revenue and by next year, hopefully, have a plan to deal with the money owed to the gas provider.
Regardless, he said, it looks as if the city will likely double its millage rate to balance its budget, effectively doubling property taxes in the city.
Mayor Lester Hadden told those gathered that it is likely that taxes could go up again next year as the city begins addressing the debt.
One of the first responses was called out from the crowd: “Y’all know they’re not going to go down once they go up.”
Mayor Hadden responded saying that no, he and Thrift and the rest of the council did plan on bringing the taxes back down as expenses are cut and the debt is paid off.
“I’m a property owner here too,” Hadden said. “I hate to do this. We all do.”
Buford Manning was the first citizen to stand and address the council from the podium.
He questioned the solvency of the city’s water fund and asked specifically about what outstanding loans the city currently has.
Manning suggested the city look into reducing the number of trash pickups during the week.
Hadden responded that the city is looking into possibly getting back into the garbage pickup business and saving money over its current provider.
Michelle Weatherford told the council that she owns six rental homes in town and the raise in property tax is going to have a serious effect on her ability to keep them and likely her rental rates.
She asked about audit reports and pointedly asked the council members why they didn’t know this debt was accumulating.
“You’re giving me two months notice,” she said. “Are you going to give me an extension or run my name in the paper if I can’t pay (her property tax bill)?”
Thrift responded that the city was planning to work with citizens on their tax payments.
Weatherford went on to ask about the possibility of a sales tax that she believes would be more fair than strictly taxing property owners.
“No one is getting hit as hard as we are and now you’re saying that we’re going to get another round (of tax hikes) again next year,” Weatherford said. “There are still dirt roads in town and potholes in our streets. We don’t live in Evans, but you’re charging us like we do.”
She complained of abandoned housing around town that decreases property values.
Renee Weeks, another resident, also spoke up expressing her incredulity that no one knew, as the council claims, that the bill for the gas provider was not getting paid in full.
Manning addressed the council again questioning the city’s financial audits.
“Will there be a criminal action taken” he asked. “We would like to see justice.”
“I understand where you all are coming from,” City Attorney Chris Dube responded. “There is some lukewarm language in the auditor’s report about the city transferring too much money from the gas revenues, but there is no big red flag on the report.”
He went on to explain that it looks like the city was paying all other bills first, and just shorting the gas company when there wasn’t enough revenue to cover all the bills.
“Was there negligence or bad management, yes. Is it criminal, I don’t know,” Dube said. “From what we can tell, no one personally benefited from this. It doesn’t look like anything was taken. Poorly managed, yes. But criminal, there’s no evidence of that.”
Manning requested that the city ask the state attorney general to look into the matter and determine if there should be a criminal investigation.
“We would like to know why it happened,” Manning said.
Weeks asked if safeguards had been put in place to ensure that it would not happen again.
Thrift explained that the city has changed auditors and taken other steps, but admitted that with a small staff, it is impossible to spread the work load over so many people that fraud would be impossible.
Other citizens asked about council member’s training in financing and expressed that they did not feel like the state required amount was enough.
George Samples said he was concerned that people and businesses would move away because of the higher taxes, leaving the remaining citizens shouldering more of a burden than they do now.
“We do not want to kill any economic growth in Wrens,” Hadden said. “The only reason I am still here as mayor is because I love this city and it’s been good to me.”
Other citizens told the council that they needed to work together more closely, with less infighting.
When citizen Sam Way took the podium, he addressed his fellow citizens and told them that it was their responsibility to elect candidates that were qualified and could do the job. He told the councilmembers that if they didn’t know what they were doing, it was their duty to get up and go home.
Manning told the citizens that he felt this current crisis was an excellent opportunity for Wrens to “prove its character, to pull together, and pull itself out of this situation.”
In its regularly scheduled meeting the city discussed setting the tentative millage rate at 20.5 mills. No formal action was taken.
Wadley votes to ban pit bulls
By Carol McLeod
The city council of Wadley voted Monday, Sept. 14, to ban pit bull dogs and mixed breed dogs that are predominantly pit bulls.
Several citizens have complained to the city council during meetings about dogs in their neighborhoods.
During a called meeting Friday, Aug. 28, the council discussed this issue with the city’s attorney, John Murphy.
One of the main concerns council discussed was protecting citizens from dangerous dogs without requiring the animal first be proven to be dangerous.
The council agreed they did not want to have to wait until a dog had bitten or attacked someone before action could be taken against the dog.
Murphy drafted an ordinance, which he had given to the council members during a work session so they could review the ordinance before voting on it Monday night.
Murphy said during the August meeting that there may not be a ban like this in any municipality in Georgia.
Murphy said other cities have passed ordinances that specify dogs must be kept behind certain types of fencing and other restrictions.
“Those types of ordinances put a burden on the city for monitoring purposes,” he said.
“People will say, ‘Any dog can bite,’ but not any dog can take your face off,” Murphy told the council during the August meeting.
During the September meeting, Councilwoman Edie Pundt made a motion to accept the ordinance as written by the city’s attorney.
“We’ve had enough time for everybody to look it over,” she said.
The motion passed.
Murphy suggested the city advertise the ordinance and notify owners of such dogs about the ban.
Part of the ordinance recognizes that any dog may attack humans and states, “the evidence available to the City Council of Wadley has convinced this body that the pit bull dog is infinitely more dangerous than any other breed once it does attack.”
The ordinance also states the council “has determined that it is not reasonable to allow an individual dog, whose breed harbors known traits of viciousness and aggression, to have a ‘free first bite’ before being classified as ‘vicious’ or ‘dangerous’ under state law.”
The ordinance applies to a breed that is commonly known as a pit bull dog or pit bull terrier and includes any Staffordshire bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, American pit bull breed or that has the appearance and characteristics of being mainly of any such breed or identifiable as partially of such a breed.
Owners have 90 days to remove such animals from Wadley’s city limits, according to the ordinance, which took effect Monday.
Owners who violate this ordinance face a fine of up to $500 plus costs, up to six months in jail and up to 180 days of community service.
The ordinance states a violator could face any charge or a combination.
Additionally, each day the ordinance is violated would be a separate offense.
Car totaled, deputy OK...
A Jefferson County deputy was traveling south on Old US Highway 1 Wednesday, Sept. 9, about 12:10 p.m. when he swerved to avoid a deer crossing the road. A trooper with the Georgia State Patrol investigated the accident. Trooper First Class David Holland stated in his report that the vehicle left the roadway and went onto the eastern shoulder, traveled about 235 feet before the driver overcorrected. This caused the vehicle to spin clockwise as it traveled across both lanes of traffic and onto the western shoulder. The car overturned multiple times before striking a tree. Carl Wagster, the county’s EMS director, said the deputy was taken to the hospital where he was treated and released.
Meetings planned to review schools’ options
By Faye Ellison
In an effort to gain community input, the Jefferson County Board of Education will hold two community meetings on issues and opportunities facing the school system in a time of declining revenue and enrollment.
Jefferson County School Superintendent Carl Bethune explained that the loss of jobs in Jefferson County has affected the number of students who attend the county’s schools as well as the amount of funds the school system receives from the state and taxes.
“We think this is a hot button topic and we would like the community to be involved. We would like as much community input as possible,” he said. “Basically the loss of revenue and enrollment will cause the Board to have to make some tough decisions. The eventual loss of $1.2 million in stimulus money will require the Board of Education to find solutions to deal with declining revenues.”
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The meetings will both be held at Jefferson County High School on Sept. 28 and Oct. 19 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Bethune said the purpose of the Sept. 28 meeting is to clarify the opportunities and the challenges facing the school system, review options available to the district and answer questions from community members to clarify the options.
The Oct. 19 meeting will build on the September presentation.
“The purpose of the second meeting is for the participants to work in small groups,” Bethune explained. “They will decide what principles they hope are used by the Board of Education in making decisions about the issues at hand. They will also consider ways to lessen the impact of change and decide the different ways that citizens and schools can work together to best educate the children and youth of Jefferson County.”
Bethune said the best way to weather the stormy economic times would be with a plan in place to cause as little impact to educational instruction for the students, which he said is why the school system is here.
All school board members will participate in the meetings as well as Bethune and other Board of Education staff, and there will also be a presentation by the State Board of Education.
“The public is encouraged to attend these important meetings,” Bethune said.