MARY ANN ANDERSON
A sometimes-heated exchange about how to best spend $772,453 in funds the City of Hazlehurst received from the American Rescue Plan set off a profanity-laced kerfuffle between Mayor Bayne Stone and members of the Hazlehurst City Council during last week’s regularly-scheduled workshop.
With Stone referring to ARP stimulus check as “Santa Claus money” and “COVID money,” he stated that “some of us have been spending it before we got it,” referring specifically to a vote passed weeks ago that provided each employee would receive a $1,500 net bonus from the first proceeds.
Stipulations of how the stimulus can be spent have been placed upon governments who receive it. The City is no exception, and those stipulations provide that no operating costs can be paid from the funds.
Before launching fully into the agenda item, Stone handed out copies of the working trial balances for the period ending June 1, 2020, and then another for July 6, 2021. Both show the general fund and golf course in the red, with the water and sewer department in the black. Stone noted the primary reason for water and sewer surplus was that the general fund owes it about $740,000, while the golf course owes it $210,000.
“This is one heck of a mess,” Stone stated before adding that while the general fund and golf course borrowed from water and sewer, no money was borrowed from banks to cover losses.
Stone also said that he had received no financial reports during the past year but that he had kept up with all bank balances.
“I knew it was treacherous,” he said of the City’s financial condition, “and we were in a tough position.”
But he also reminded the council that a “heavy cash flow” will come in October, November and December, including utility payments and ad valorem taxes. He said that despite being in “hock” and “in debt bad,” the city can survive until then.
During his long speech, he explained that the ARP money was given to the City because of its income deficits during the pandemic, adding, “We had a balanced budget last year, but the revenue didn’t come in because of the circumstances with COVID.”
A portion of the mayor’s anger was directed toward the council because he said the bonus checks for the employees were put on his desk for signatures before the ARP money was in the bank. Slamming his hand on the podium, his anger apparent, he stated, “Before the money got here in the bank, when it was almost in the bank, everybody’s up here spending it. It burnt me up, as you can probably tell. We need to sit down and see what we’re doing and look at what’s going on.”
Ward Two Councilman John Ramay didn’t take Stone’s words without insult.
“We cannot look at this relief program to take care of our past mistakes,” said Ramay, pointing out that the bonus checks had been approved weeks before. “This is not a magic wand to cure our problems that we created ourselves.”
Ramay also told Stone to “not try to fool the people” by saying the ARP money wasn’t in the bank before the checks were written, as it had already been deposited, although Stone insisted that it wasn’t. Stone then took the floor again, stating, “You ought to slow down and use some common sense. We haven’t been using it.”
Ward 1 Councilman Dywane Johnson concurred with Stone, saying, “Before we spend, we need to know what we’re doing …We’re going to do fine, but we have to be together when these things come about.”
But then Stone lashed out once again at the council, saying that it wasn’t in the best interest of the City “for us to sit here like drunk sailors and start writing checks with this mess going on.”
With the caveat to the council to “get your butts down here and figure out what the heck’s going on,” Stone abruptly ended that portion of the work session.
When Thursday’s regular session rolled around, tempers had cooled dramatically, with Stone noting that about $200,000 of the $744,453 had been spent yet no real planning had occurred and that the council should take a look at its circumstances and “utilize [the money] to the best and benefit for the City of Hazlehurst and be careful that we don’t get our priorities wrong.”
During the workshop, with Ward 4 Councilman John Bloodworth absent because of prior commitments, the council, in other action ….
…. after hearing a lengthy discussion from Thomas Swain of Flint River Blues, Inc., agreed to co-sponsor, to the tune of $2,500, “An Evening with Willie Spence and Friends,” a concert to be held in August at Cotton Patch Extreme. The roster of singers also includes Deanna Johnson of Hazlehurst and the Billy Rigsby Band of Tallahassee.
…. approved a resolution to place on the November 2 ballot a referendum that will let the voters decide to legalize package sales of distilled spirits within the city limits.
…. opened bids for street resurfacing projects, with SWW Construction of Soperton bidding $135,546 for 1.25 inches of asphalt overlay and $158,704 for 1.5 inches and East Coast Asphalt of Douglas bidding $168,388.50 for 1.5 inches. The bid by Georgia Asphalt Producers of Baxley was $157,999.75, but it did not include the asphalt measurement. Then during Thursday’s regular meeting, the council accepted the bid by Georgia Asphalt, with Ramay voicing his concerns that the company is known for change orders and asked that the council consider the difference between the low bid and the next bid from East Coast Asphalt was only $704. The council unanimously accepted Georgia Asphalt’s bid.
…. approved a proclamation noting July 17, 2021, as Joe Lee Hansley Foundation Day.
…. heard from The Flower Gallery owner Landon Chavis, who is on the committee for Hazlehurst’s South Georgia Food and Wine Festival, that the dates for the event, which had originally been scheduled for this past April, have been moved again from September to October 22-23.
In other action during Thursday’s short regular meeting, the council ….
…. discussed citizen complaints of 18-wheel “big rig” truck drivers taking shortcuts through residential areas. Stone appointed Ramay to head up a study to determine what can be done to solve the problem, including possibly passing ordinances to help keep those neighborhoods free of trucks.
…. briefly discussed but took no formal action on the year-end spending reports.
…. heard from Steve Faught, who is over Hazlehurst Water World Splash Pad. The splash pad was closed several days prior to the meeting because of what Faught termed “equipment malfunction,” and that the original manufacturer had been contacted for help with repairs. Faught noted that he hopes the splash pad can be reopened sometime this week. Also, during the work session, it was noted in the Mayor’s and Council’s Comments section that a family from out of state had written complaints on Facebook that their children had become ill with hand, foot and mouth disease, which the parents believed had been transmitted at the splash pad. After the complaint, the water was tested by the City and Jeff Davis County Health Department, but no contaminants were found in the water. Out of an abundance of caution, the splash pad was closed for immediate steam cleaning and disinfection. No one else reported any illnesses.
…. approved the minutes of June’s regular and called meetings, departmental reports, water and sewer adjustments and check register for bills already paid for June 2021.
…. after hearing discussions in both the workshop and regular meeting, agreed to pay Triple H Specialty Company of Hazlehurst for a generator that was purchased for the new Georgia State Patrol post, with the City to be reimbursed fully by the Department of Public Safety.
…. voted to rename a short segment of road at Moody and Cole streets to Lance Lane, with no changes to the E-911 or city map system.
…. heard an update from Hazlehurst Municipal Airport Manager Cody White, who stated that the airport should reopen this week after being closed for more than two months for repaving.
…. moved into closed session to discuss personnel issues, and then returned to session saying that action would be taken at a later date.