Outrage over a proposed millage rate brought about 30 Walthourville residents to the first of three public hearings Thursday evening. Because council chambers seat half as many people, the city is holding the public hearings in the Walthourville Fire Department’s firehouse.
WALTHOURVILLE BUDGET PROPERTY TAX PUBLIC HEARINGS
Millage rate hearings at Walthourville Fire Department, 264 Busbee Road
- 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16
- 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30.
- 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 13
- 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 4
Citizens do not need to sign up in advance to take part in these hearings, unlike regular council meetings.
The city is holding three millage rate hearings and three budget hearings, alternating through the end of the year. However, the 2023 budget remains unbalanced, despite state law requiring municipalities to pass balanced budgets.
Beyond the finger-pointing and political posturing, the fact remains that Walthourville needs to bring money into the city coffers, and a city millage rate alone won’t be enough to pay for everything. At the Oct. 10 council meeting, the Georgia Municipal Association’s Pam Helton said the city of 3,800 could get more revenue by charging franchise fees to utility companies. Helton also urged the city to contact the Georgia Rural Water Association to find out whether it is undercharging for water service.
Failure to balance the budget could lead to cuts in city services. If the city fails to provide enough services as required by state law, it could lose its charter.
In 2022, the city overspent by $700,000. This year, according to GMA’s Helton, the city is “heading in that same direction, not that much money, but you’re heading in that same direction.” Unlike 2022, she added, “The city of Walthourville does not have the reserves to carry them over with fund balance as they have in the past.”
Chicken and egg
Local governments charge franchise fees to utilities for the privilege of letting them run their company’s pipes or wires through town. For example, a cable company might pay a franchise fee because the city is letting them connect homes and businesses to television and Internet services. The city also could collect fees from the railroad, whose trains run through town several times each day.
However, Mayor Larry Baker told The Current, until the city puts a millage rate in place, it cannot go after those franchise fees that Helton had strongly urged them to collect.
Baker and Mayor Pro Tem Sarah B. Hayes, who will face each other in the Dec. 5 runoff for mayor, were the only elected officials present at the meeting’s start time. Two current council members who were voted out of office Tuesday, James Hendry and Charlie Anderson, did not attend the meeting. Two of the three new councilmen-elect, Patrick Underwood and Mitchell Boston, were in the audience. Several minutes later, Councilwomen Bridgette Kelly and Luciria Luckey Lovett arrived, making the required quorum for an official meeting.
Asked for her thoughts on what to do about the budget, Hayes said, “I have a lot of work to do, which I will do in the streets tomorrow. I’m in touch with other council members in other cities right now as we speak, seeing how they do things and what they come up with. The main thing is to work on this budget. It’s hard to do things without the men [the councilmen who skipped the meeting]….They called and told him [Baker] they weren’t coming.”
If elected, Hayes said she plans to meet with each council member individually, “to listen to them, to see what their thoughts are,” as well as hold town hall meetings for citizens. Hayes said, “I will change the [council meeting] agenda so our citizens can get back their voice in the meeting.” Current city policy requires citizens who want to address the council to call City Hall the Friday before the meeting and ask to be placed on the agenda. (The number to call is 912-368-7501.)
‘We’re not here to take anyone’s home’
Citizens said over and over that they want to know “where the money went,” and that they did not want a millage rate so high that retirees, disabled people, and others might not be able to afford to stay in their homes.
One homeowner, a retired schoolteacher, was on the verge of tears as she told the mayor and council, “My problem is that my taxes, my property taxes right now, are more than my income. And it’s been that way since my husband died a few years ago. So this millage rate thing is really, really troubling me. I have trouble sleeping at night thinking about it because I don’t want to lose my home. But that looks like what’s gonna happen.” She suggested additional ways to raise money, including fundraiser events. “But there’s got to be other ways to do this.”
Baker said, “For the record, we’re not here to take anyone’s home, their property, or their livelihood. This city is not the mayor’s city. This city belongs to each and every one of us. Thank you, ma’am, we heard you loud and clear.”
After the meeting, Baker told The Current, “I did my due diligence. I presented a balanced budget. The council voted to unbalance it.”
But residents said they were confused as to how the city would know how much to charge for the millage rate without knowing the status of the current budget.
Boston told the crowd, “Unfortunately, Walthourville has been betting on this trajectory for a while….But we have both a spending problem and a revenue issue. And one thing I know about bringing in revenue is if you don’t have a vision on where it’s gonna go, you’re gonna find yourself even deeper and bringing in more money doesn’t solve the spending issue. So we need to first find out what’s going out. Where’s it going? That way, we could know how much we need. I’m afraid that as a city, we are faced with some difficult decisions….we implemented departments without the means to pay for it, and you know that’s not right. If we’re gonna incur bills, we have to know how we’re gonna pay for those bills. To me, that’s common sense. But, you know, here we are. I don’t have a number as to what the millage rate is going to be. But at this point, I don’t think we really have a choice.”
Gwendolyn Dykes told the council. “I do not want to see the City of Walthourville getting into further debt. My thought is this: whatever is decided, of course we’re going to comply because we’re law-abiding citizens. So what I was saying is, if you impose a millage rate, that every quarter that the council will tell us how much debt has increased. Because the only way you’re gonna get out of debt is to do something about it. There’s no sense in having whatever the debt is and then I don’t have no plan to get rid of it. I don’t know who got us into the mess we’re in, because of the fact that [the price of] things went up and we didn’t budget those things in, or we did budget them in and we went over budget. But the only way I know of for us to get out of this mess is for us all to work together.”
Shirley Thornton agreed, and warned the city could lose its charter otherwise. “This is their [the mayor and council’s] plan. You know, we have to pay this. However, we’re not happy with it. So we either support each other, or the city’s gonna be taken. And one thing about being in Walthourville, it was that we didn’t pay taxes. And so, we will all have to get together, however, as a community, as a family, and figure out how can we get out of this debt.”
Thornton added that she thought the citizens should get a report every three months to see whether the city’s debt goes down.
“It was my understanding that we were $700,000 in debt,” she said. “And so as citizens, we have got to come up with something or we’re gonna lose Walthourville. And it’s sad, but I’m hoping that when people get it [the proposed city property tax], it won’t be so high that people can’t afford it. And I need everybody to be mindful that when you do that, if you don’t pay those taxes, your house can be taken. Your land can be taken. So we have to sit back as individual people, we all know each other, to stick together enough to try and get out of this mess.”
At one point, a former city employee, Chantel Ray, took up for Baker, blaming the council for not passing a balanced budget: “When it was supposed to be voted upon, they didn’t want to vote upon it….The mayor does not vote on the budget. So a lot of things when you blame the mayor, it is not his fault. Also with the budget, there was a fire tax that was involved. It was already calculated in. That was the budget that was supposed to be done. They took it out. That’s the budget. …So the water fund, the water fund does generate a lot of money. But once the general fund takes from the water fund, you can’t replenish the water fund. … You want roads, you want paved roads, you want things like that. That money is revenue. But we have to bring that revenue in and work to get those things fixed.”
Thornton told the crowd to get back on track.
“People can have their own opinion,” she said. “What we’re trying to figure out, we have people here who is on fixed income. All we really want to do here is try to figure out what do we do to help people? Because you’ve got to remember: These people have been here a lot of years, and they are elderly people. “
One Walthourville homeowner who did not want to give her name because she works in a government job said she had filed a Georgia Open Records request for copies of the city’s budget but that the paperwork she received did not give a complete picture of the city’s finances. She added that she’s prepared to sell and move if the city passes a millage rate that makes property taxes too high.
‘Our councilmembers…had no clue’
Before the meeting, The Current met with several residents, who were concerned about how money was spent and whether the council members had paid close attention.
“My thing is, we can’t move forward until they, you know — how do they anticipate doing a budget and don’t know where they are, where they stand?” Renee Hemingway said. “So we’ve requested open records, so that we can take a look to see what is coming in and what has gone out. Like the other night, they were saying they were supposed to be having a budget meeting, okay? And it was obvious that our council members who are responsible for the budget for the city had no clue about what has been done…when did they meet as a body to come up with a budget?”
Vondell Hudson said she wants to know “where the money is and why it’s not there. I understand that they said the other night that they didn’t have any fees coming in. Well, as a city, they should be getting franchise fees from electric company, Comcast, stores, all the businesses, crown taxes from the liquor store and any place that sells beer — all that should be revenue that’s coming into the city. And at one time, they were getting these funds. So you just need to see the records to see if, in fact, it was coming in, and what was done with it.”
She criticized the millage rate hearings, pointing to Monday’s two-hour budget hearing “and why nobody showed up. The mayor wasn’t there. The city clerk wasn’t there. Why would you schedule a meeting and then not show up for it?” (Moss had been absent due to a previously-scheduled medical procedure.)
For Bernice Morrison, like many other Walthour residents, the controversy comes down to one simple question:
“I wanna know where the money went.”