‘Happy Spending’ Has City In Trouble

By
MARY ANN ANDERSON
“We are spending too much, and we have to live within our means.”
That’s the directive that City of Hazlehurst accountant Tammy Metts Dyal issued to the Hazlehurst City Council during a called meeting on Tuesday morning.
During the hour-long meeting, cool heads prevailed although the focus was on the hot topic of finances.
Dyal kicked off the meeting by saying that the city’s outflow of money was “too great” as compared to its inflow. As of July, she said, the city had only $155,000, adding that with this week’s bi-monthly payroll of about $120,000 and a sinking fund payment due of $33,000, the money would be gone.
She further explained that as a comparison at the fiscal end of 2016, the city had $583,700 in its accounts, and at the end of 2017, that amount was $429,000.
Dyal noted the city had recently taken out a $300,000 line of credit, but $100,000 of that was used to pay J. Hiers Company of Baxley for paving work on the parallel runway that was completed at Hazlehurst Municipal Airport. That money was to have been repaid by a Georgia Department of Transportation grant of $150,000, but as of this week, the city had not received it.
Later in the meeting, under a separate agenda item, the council passed a motion authorizing Mayor Bayne Stone to sign a contract so that the DOT could advance the grant money. That money will repay the $100,000 Stone had advanced Hiers from the line of credit, with an additional $41,877 also going to Hiers to complete its contract.
During Dyal’s lengthy but thorough presentation, she cited several reasons why the city is hurting financially, including the continuous deficit and expenses related to the city-owned Twisted Pine Golf Course, increases in payroll and insurance, the purchase and upkeep of Hazlehurst Splash Pad, and overtime and other outlays linked to the cleanup from Hurricane Irma last fall.
“It’s not just one thing,” she said. “It’s everything. Everything has gone up.”
She also pointed out that in the past, she had a “stash” of cash to work with, but now, she said, “There’s nothing left for me to pull out of a hat. I’ve already done it.”
Ward One Councilman Dywane Johnson said to her that the council would listen to her recommendations, adding, “I trust your knowledge.”
With that, she asked the council for an additional $200,000 to be used only for operating expenses, from the original $300,000 line of credit the city had already received, and then adding that technically it would have to be repaid within a year.
She explained that while the golf course and general fund are in deficit, the water and sewer account is doing well but that the city couldn’t continue “piggybacking” on it.
Ward Two Councilman John Ramay said that he was “very concerned” about the budgetary needs, and that the way he sees it, three things need to be improved upon, including the way purchase orders are handled, checking on bills before they are paid – they are currently approved only after they are paid – and to put the golf course up for sale since it hasn’t made money in the few years that the city has owned it.
But Ward Four Councilman John Bloodworth disagreed on selling the golf course, telling the council that the golf course committee, which oversees memberships and expenses, has “gotten it better.” Dyal and Bloodworth also suggested that perhaps Jeff Davis County and the Jeff Davis County Board of Education could get “onboard” with the upkeep of the golf course.
Dyal proposed having each purchase order approved by City Clerk Vernice Lopez to help out in that respect, adding that the current system is “out of hand,” with what she termed “happy spending.” She also suggested a possible hiring freeze for the city.
But Ward Three Councilman Eric Griffin defended the increases in payroll, stating, “The cost of living has gone up tremendously. When the cost of living goes up, you pretty much have to take care of your employees … to keep good people. It was, in fact, the right thing to do.”
Both Dyal and Stone pointed out that money is coming into the city from several sources in the next few months, including the DOT grant, but with Stone warning, “We’ve got to start cutting expenses somewhere or either raise taxes.”
With Ramay asking for “solutions, not problems,” Dyal said, “We have to increase the revenue if we are to maintain what we have right now. We have to scale back and tighten our purse strings.”
Griffin then made a motion to raise the line of credit to $500,000, with Bloodworth seconding it.
Ramay agreed with it, adding, “But we’ve got to figure out a way to pay for it. It’s easy to increase, but if we can’t pay it back, we’re just digging the hole deeper.”
Stone then added that the budget would also have to be amended almost immediately.
Griffin then amended his original motion to use the additional line of credit to be used only for operating expenses.
Both motions were unanimously approved.
In other action, after hearing from Charles Harrell, the city’s code enforcement officer, the council approved a recommendation of the Zoning Board to engage the USDA’s Rural Development Council to work with the city to update zoning laws, ordinances, and city maps.
After going into closed session to discuss a contractual dispute that could lead to the city being a plaintiff in a law suit, the council returned to regular session and stated that no action was taken in the matter.

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