MARY ANN ANDERSON
Last week’s called meeting of the Hazlehurst City Council may have begun as what Ward One Councilman Dywane Johnson termed a “fireside chat” to discuss finances, but it evolved into one not quite of contentiousness but more of frustration about the city’s overall fiscal health.
Johnson specifically pointed out, among other issues, ongoing problems with hiring, overspending because of a broken purchase order system, and approving of bills by the council only after they have been paid. He suggested that a system of checks and balances should be implemented among the council, mayor, city clerk, and city accountant to get “everything straightened out.”
“We have to tighten our belts,” he said, a phrase that would be echoed several times in the meeting by Mayor Bayne Stone and other council members. “We cannot buy things not in the budget.”
Ward Three Councilman Eric Griffin agreed with Johnson, saying that the city needs accountability on its finances, especially the purchase order system that needs “tightening.”
“We have to hold the department heads accountable,” Griffin said of the overspending. “We have to hold the mayor accountable. And we have to hold ourselves accountable to our constituents. If we’re not doing that, and we’re not trying to get any better at it, nothing’s going to change … It’s a council decision when we go to spending money.”
Johnson then pointed out that the city is in “good shape,” for this year, but next year the finances would “hit us in the face.”
Griffin then threw the meeting a curveball when he added that the City had been awarded a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for $750,000, with a match of $150,000.
“We can’t afford the match money for it,” Griffin said, adding, “We can’t afford to go to the bank and borrow $150,000 for the $750,000 grant … If we don’t have the $150,000 to match it, we might not get another grant. We have to think long and hard about that before we decide to get anything like that.”
That’s when Mayor Bayne Stone, largely silent for the first part of the meeting, stated that while the general fund is “in debt tremendously” to the water and sewer fund, the water and sewer fund is “thoroughly capable” of handling the match and that the grant, which is for water and sewer improvements, is doable.
Griffin then suggested that Public Works Director Carl Leggett, City Accountant Tammy Metts Dyal, and Associates in Local Government Assistance (ALGA), the city’s grant writers in Alma, should be consulted about how the grant should be handled, including possibly reducing it or providing in-kind contributions rather than a cash match.
That’s when Ward Two Councilman John Ramay stepped into the conversation. On hiring, he said that three departments are undermanned, and that any hiring for those positions would be “replacement hiring” only with no additional employees to be added.
As for the way purchase orders are presently handled, Ramay did admit that the council, himself included, was approving some of them only after purchases were already made.
“We have to stop that and have some kind of checks and balances so that we do not overspend,” he said. “We can’t continue to dig the hole when we’re in the hole. Digging deeper is only getting us further in trouble.”
Stone then admitted that the city was financially “a whale of a lot better” a few years ago, but since then several “nice facilities” were built or refurbished and paid for with cash, including City Hall and the police department and municipal courtroom buildings.
“That depleted [our] reserves,” he acknowledged. “At any rate, we’ve been much too liberal with our spending, and we’ve got to be more frugal.”
Stone also lamented that the city, while bringing up police officer salaries to competitive numbers to retain a good force, is unable to pay more to its employees. He said that he approved raises for the “good, hardworking honest man,” but doing so also helped throw the budget off-kilter.
That’s when the seemingly ages-old arguments regarding the city’s borrowing on its lines of credit to pay for airport improvements and the roundabouts recently built in the school district reared their heads. But, Stone added, forthcoming grant money will help pay down the lines of credit.
While some of the bills for those two projects have been paid, Stone said that several contractors have yet to be paid in full because the city has yet to receive the grant money that was to help pay for them.
“We’re doing a lot of good here,” he justified to the council, before cautioning, “One thing for sure, we can’t keep going like we’re going. All of this can be worked out with this council. All we have to do now is get our heads together and be good managers.”
Stone then conceded that he had been, in his words, “guilty,” and “made a mistake,” of borrowing from the SPLOST funds and adding it to grant funds to pay the bills for the roundabouts, as well as borrowing from the water and sewer account to fund the general account.
That’s when Griffin fired back to Stone about keeping the council “out of the loop” of his decisions, saying that bringing up the roundabouts once again when it had been hashed myriad times in the past two years was “irrelevant.”
“It’s wrong, and you know that,” Griffin said to Stone. “You made a mistake, and you admitted it, but it doesn’t go back and fix anything.”
By then, the meeting had become, in Stone’s terminology, a “kicking contest.”
But Ramay then switched the discussion back to the $750,000 CDBG, asking for a “conclusion” of whether to take the grant, with his reservations focusing on the city’s ability to come up with the match.
Stone told Ramay that city would be the “laughingstock” of the state if the money were refused, but Ramay countered, “The laughter would be louder if we can’t pay it back.”
But Stone also shot back, “If this council can’t figure out a way to do that, we don’t need to be here.”
That’s when Johnson leapt back into the exchange, reiterating Griffin’s suggestion to confer with Dyal, Leggett, and ALGA on the grant.
“We don’t want to have to shoot ourselves in the foot and turn it down,” he concluded.
Johnson then added, “Every one of us is saying the same identical thing … This is a good council. We have to learn to communicate together. When we do, everything will be all right.”
Ward Four Councilman John Bloodworth was not present for the meeting.
With fireside chat-turned-kicking contest essentially over by that point, the council turned its attention to its other agenda items.
First off, the council unanimously agreed to a repayment plan of past due taxes that were levied on EP American Footwear because of what Griffin said was a “mishap” in a contract between the city and the company.
Next, after hearing from Deputy City Clerk Lorrie Williams and Jeff Davis County Tax Commissioner Susie Kersey, the council unanimously approved a contract with Appalachian Mountain Services, Inc., of Lawrenceville to attempt to collect on a backlog of delinquent tax accounts. The council also named Williams as the levying officer who will work with Appalachian on those collection efforts.
The council then authorized a contract with Ryland Environmental for trash pickup services in the city and for those living outside of the Hazlehurst city limits. Johnson was the sole opposing vote for the contract.
The council then met in closed session, returning after a few minutes with no action taken on the unnamed matter.