2018-04-12 / Front Page

Council balks at community garden; utility carryover balance reinstated

By SPARKY NEWSOME
editor and publisher

Efforts by Washington Mayor Ames Barnett, City Administrator Sherri Bailey, and others to create and implement a “community garden” were nixed by four councilmen who voted against moving forward with the project.

As previously announced in this newspaper and in the city’s newsletter included with monthly utility bills, plans for a community garden were developed for the old football practice field at the Gordon Street school property. The area is irrigated, fenced, and centrally located. The plan called for the field to be divided into plots which could then be claimed (for a small security deposit) by individuals, families, churches, or clubs in order to cultivate and grow crops of their choosing. The resulting produce could then be shared, consumed, or given to those in need.

Envisioning the project as a way for local citizens to build relationships by “working together and growing together,” Barnett said such projects have worked in other cities and could be successful in Washington.

Bailey explained that gardening tools could be made available to plot holders and that any deposits made would be refunded as long as tools were returned and the plots cleaned up after use. She also reported that she had consulted with Public Works Director Bobby Mills and City Planner Marcus Dill on how best to layout the plots and otherwise prepare the site. No money has yet been spent on the proposed project, she said.

“We’re going to try it this year,” Barnett said. “We want everybody to get involved in it and I believe it will be a big success. We should be getting it laid out this week.”

“We’ve got to stop going ahead and doing things without having proper dialog,” Councilman Maceo Mahoney objected, charging that the program had been implemented without councilmen’s knowledge. “For the record, I can’t vote for it because I had no prior notice of it and my district didn’t know anything about it.”

“I just thought we were going to sit here and discuss it and move forward,” Councilman Marion Tutt said. “I didn’t know things already had been moved without taking action on it.”

The mayor responded that no money had been spent, only the process of checking out what other cities have done. Bailey reported that Dill had told her the project would “fit in nicely” with what the Urban Redevelopment Authority has going on at the property.

“We haven’t even cut the grass in the field yet,” Bailey said, “so we haven’t really done anything to vote on yet. I think it’s a good idea.”

Councilmen Mike Scarborough and Peewee Armour voted in favor of the garden, Councilman Travis Armour abstained, and Councilmen Nathaniel Cullars, Tutt, and Mahoney voted against the measure.

“So no garden,” Barnett reacted.

“Maybe not this year,” Tutt said. “You’ve got to do it the right way.”

“Citizens, just let me let you know,” Barnett said, “we tried to get you a community garden. It was in District One and District One voted against it.”

“It’s not that District One was against a community garden,” Tutt said. “We were against the protocol and the process.”

In another matter, Mayor Barnett suggested that the city reconsider the “carryover” allowance on utility bills. In action at the March meeting, the council voted to eliminate the carryover balance and thus require full payment to be made on all utility bills. Previously, the $150 allowance had provided a cushion for utility customers for months when bills run high.

“Citizens have reached out to us and I’d like to have a motion to allow us to put back the carryover of $150,” Barnett said. At the mayor’s suggestion, all councilmen agreed and voted unanimously to reinstate the carryover.

However, while the former $75 late payment fee is still eliminated, Bailey reminded everyone that $150 is the absolute cutoff point and that bills not paid by 5 p.m. on the third of the following month would result in power being turned off and not turned back on until the entire balance of the bill is paid.

Mayor Barnett also reported on the state of the city saying, “The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.

“When I began as mayor, I knew where we were as a city, and I knew where we needed to be,” he continued. “The past could not be changed, and the future was unknown, but I knew that in order to help the city prosper, and to be prepared for what the future might hold, both good and bad, we needed to build up our foundation.”

With goals to build reserves, retire old debt, provide proper tools for employees, and to run the city efficiently, Barnett offered figures showing the city’s progress from 2011 through 2017. The figures showed a $667,475 reduction in cash less encumbrances; a $1.3 million increase in investments; a $4.7 million increase in capital net of depreciation; and a $3.7 million increase in debt.

One of the investment items on the list is capital reserves in the amount of $696,837, up from $0 in 2011. “That’s a big number and that’s where we fund depreciation,” the mayor explained. “When we need to buy equipment down the road, we won’t have to increase our debt to buy that equipment. One of my goals is to fund depreciation so we don’t have to keep borrowing money to run the city.”

Citing the figure of some $22.8 million in net assets, Barnett said, “We’ve made the city worth 21 percent more. We have grown the net worth of the city by 21 percent in a period of six years.” That figure is up from the 2011 level of $18 million.

“I believe you’re either growing or you’re shrinking; you’re either worth more or you’re worth less,” Barnett said. “My goal is to continue in our net position and be worth more than we were yesterday.”

In conclusion, the mayor’s report said that:

. Reserves are up – building capital reserves and consumer deposits from zero to $849,644.

. Over 17 percent of the city total debt since 2011 has been retired.

. The city’s net worth has increased over nine percent.

. Actual expenditures from 2011- 2017 are down by over $3.3 million, even with a nine percent inflation rate over those six years.

. Cash flows have increased because of increased efforts to reduce expenses and better collection processes.

“This council stepped up over a month ago to help Berry Plastics with electric loads,” Barnett said. “People asked how can the city afford that and what does it mean to us,” he continued. “What it really means is that through a good administrator and a good city staff, the city is in a better position than it was, and by allowing us to get in that better position, over a period of a lot of years, we have been able to help Berry Plastics.”

Addressing the citizens in attendance, Barnett summarized, saying, “A bunch of people have sacrificed to get this city in a better position than it was years ago. That’s so we can help people like Berry Plastics, the biggest industry in this town, and not pass it on to you. That’s our goal. I feel very great about the shape the city is in and we can do some things to keep people employed in Wilkes County.

“I believe when lumber mills want to come to Wilkes County, we can show them that our city government is run the way it is and we can back it up with numbers. I believe Canfor is investing in our city because they know how we operate.

“So thank you to the council, and thank you citizens for allowing us to run this city in a manner that we know is healthy.”

In other business:

. Use of The Square was approved for Pedaling for Paws, hosted by Beta Sigma Phi – Xi Delta Tau.

. The use of Lincoln Circle was approved for a “Trike-a-thon” to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

. Bailey reported on the awarding of HVAC and electrical contracts for the fire station to low bidders.

. A letter to begin a move to terminate the city’s contract with Southeastern Power Administration was approved.

. An alcohol license was approved for Tonya Binns for a location at 202 Whitehall Street.

. The location of speed bumps on West Court Street was considered.

The next regular meeting of the Washington City Council will be held at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, May 14, at The Pope Center with a work session immediately prior, starting at 3 p.m.

SPECIAL MEETING CALLED

At about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, City Clerk Debbie Danner issued the following notice:

“The Mayor and City Council of the City of Washington, Georgia, will conduct a Special Called Meeting on Wednesday, April 11, 2018, beginning at 12:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers of City Hall to consider a Community Garden at property located on Gordon Street known as the practice field of the former high school.”

Separate from that notice, there was indication that Councilman Travis Armour might change his abstention, thus possibly changing the outcome of the vote at the regular council meeting. This printed edition of The News-Reporter was already distributed before that meeting took place. Results are posted at www.news-reporter.com and on this newspaper’s Facebook page.

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