During a called meeting last Monday, the Thomaston City Council unanimously passed a budget for 2014 with a grand total of $30,789,664 which includes $5,885,900 for the general fund; $5,215,050 for water; $15,343,732 for electric and $1,165,848 for sanitary, $216,450 for Community Development; $16,625 for law enforcement; $151,400 for the Greatest Generation Memorial Park; $2 million in SPLOST funds; $70,000 for Hotel Motel tax; a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG); and a $179,659 Local Maintenance Improvement Grant (LMIG) .
However, prior to the vote, the council received an earful from a group of small business owners concerning the forthcoming 6.5 percent increase in utility rates and the possibility of a two mill increase on the millage rate later on this year during the public hearing held prior to the meeting. Several citizens spoke stating the increases would create a financial hardship on their businesses, something they are unsure they will be able to survive.
Susan Erwin, who along with her husband Mike owns Sanders Supply in Thomaston, told the council that during the summer her utility bill is around $900 a month and for a business that is already struggling, they will not be able to endure an increase in costs in utilities. She noted the couple wanted to stay in Thomaston, but had begun to think of moving their business to a more active business community and will heavily consider doing so with the increase in the rates. Mike Erwin added that he felt the possibility of a tax increase was also a terrible idea.
“This county has seen negative growth for two decades. There is not any construction going on. People are moving out of this area and people are out of jobs,” said Erwin. “People in businesses like ours, when we are faced with process going up and other things we also have to realize we have to cut some places. And maybe you have done that, I don’t know. But I can tell you with negative growth, no construction, and people losing jobs, with you raising taxes, there are other businesses like ours that won’t survive that. People will move out of this county, further lowering your tax base and if you think that’s a positive thing, if you think that is the answer to things, then you are sadly mistaken.”
Ritz Theatre owner Malcolm Neal also spoke to the council during the public hearing and stated that the bill for electricity and water at the theatre often exceeds what the business brings in due to less people coming to the movies. He noted that the city offers tax benefits to new businesses coming into town, but that the businesses that are already here need help to stay here as well.
“I’m just saying a bit more support from the city to the small businesses will go a long way,” said Neal. “When it comes to the utility rates, somehow if you have got the money in other resources or other ways rather than hit the local businesses and everybody who lives here, who are already struggling to stay in town and survive; then another percentage increase can amount to a lot of money.”
Debbie Lord stated she had spoken with many businesses throughout the downtown area and numerous citizens who all said they will not be able to take another rate increase especially since the city raised utility rates both last year and the year before. She noted many people will not be able to afford another hit and suggested the council use some of the money they have in the bank to offset the rising costs of electric and water rates.
“You guys have $13 million in the bank for your projects, you made $700,000 off of the utilities last year; you don’t have to go up,” said Lord. “We’re not asking you to decrease anything, we are just saying leave it alone.”
Thomaston Mayor Hays Arnold told those in attendance that he knew what it was like to have to scratch to make a payroll and to pay the bills, but there is never a good time to have an increase of any sort.
“As bad as I think of having to raise taxes and things of that sort, we find ourselves in a situation where we have got to do what we have to do to keep this community, to keep this city on a steady course,” said Arnold. “You’re talking about at the maximum month having a $54 (monthly increase) on your utility bill. Is that $54 the difference between you being able to make it or not make it in Thomaston?”
However, when asked how many people file for an extension on their utility bill each month, City Clerk Dennis Truitt stated he could not give an exact number, but there are ‘a lot’ each month. Even when filing for an extension, those citizens are still charged the $25 late fee for not paying the bill on time.
City Manager Patrick Comiskey stated the city is pulling in less profit margins on the utilities than they did in the 90s and the electric bill for the city (which buys its power from MEAG) is projected to go up $600,000. He stated that is a cost that has to be passed on to the citizens because the city has tried to keep costs down and reduce their margins, but it is no longer possible to do. He continued saying the city has cut their staff by one third since the closing of the mills in order to keep cost down and they have been taking money out of the bank to pay for things. However, he noted there are several projects that need to be done such as sewer line replacements and milling and paving of the roads once the lines are replaced. Comiskey stated the council is trying to do what they can to be good stewards for the community.
After that comment, Lord asked if the city really felt they were being good stewards by adding a $37,000 animal shelter to the bottom line when there is already a shelter in Upson County. To which Comiskey stated there is an agreement between the city and the county that a special tax district is supposed to be set up so no city businesses or residents will be taxed by the county when it comes to paying for the animal shelter. He continued saying having a shelter for the city will help to better manage the animals at the front end and they need to have a place to put an animal if it is picked up after the county shelter is closed. The city also already has their own Animal Control Officer.
Councilwoman Patsy Perdue noted she appreciated hearing everyone’s comments and stated she is also very concerned. She continued noting she did not want anyone to think the council was saying they were going to do something and they don’t really care how it affects anyone because that is not the truth. However, she stated while she respected the citizens opinion, she also asked they respect those of the city council.
“I guess we just have a different way of looking at the way finances should be done,” said Perdue. “I wish there was a real easy answer, but they way we do our finances, I understand it, I agree with it. I wish during our work sessions we had folks come. We’ve had work sessions (on the budget); four of them and nobody came. I wish people had come and been able to hear the reasoning behind what’s happening. “
After the public hearing, the council unanimously approved the 2014 budget with the aforementioned increases.