MARY ANN ANDERSON
Last Thursday night’s monthly meeting of the Hazlehurst City Council began with an apology by Mayor Bayne Stone for letting “things get a little bit out of hand” during Monday night’s nearly 80-minute workshop.
Tempers frayed as the workshop wore on longer than expected, especially during discussions of hiring additional employees for the already understaffed Water and Sewer and Streets Departments, with Stone pointing out that the budget is “in a mess” and that the City has “more expense than we’ve got revenue.”
That led to a sometimes contentious exchange between the mayor and Ward 2 Councilman John Ramay, with Ramay concerned that longtime employees wouldn’t be making as much money as the new hires who Stone wanted to hire at an elevated pay rate. When an obviously frustrated Councilman John Bloodworth half-jokingly asked for an intermission during the longer-than-usual meeting, the mayor abruptly ended the meeting, which led to a short but profanity-laced dust-up by Stone. But Stone’s apology at the start of Thursday’s meeting seemed to clear the air between him and the council, and the meeting then went straight to city business, including a lengthy discussion about a new hotel-motel tax ordinance.
During Monday’s workshop, City Attorney Ken W. Smith explained that hotel and motel tax revenue, which is 5 percent, is currently paid to Jeff Davis County and has been since the tax was implemented in the late 1980s. Three percent of that tax is for tourism and unrestricted for what it can do, and the other 2 percent is for the Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis County Chamber of Commerce and restricted for marketing and advertising. The entire 5 percent, in effect, is for tourism. The bone of contention is that all three local hotels are inside of the city limits. Under the newly-written hotel-motel excise tax ordinance, the entire 5 percent tax now collected by the county will go to the city, with 3 percent of unrestricted funds to go into the general fund and the remaining 2 percent to the Chamber of Commerce.
The wording of the ordinance reads, “The intent of this ordinance is to levy an excise tax on rooms, lodgings, and accommodations to provide additional funding for the promotion of tourism, conventions, and trade shows in the City of Hazlehurst.”
The first reading of the ordinance was scheduled for Thursday’s meeting, but Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis County Board of Tourism Executive Director Jim Sewell and Tourism Board member Terry Lane Stone attended the meeting to ask the City to table the matter.
After explaining that Tourism is “involved in a lot of things,” including Peaches to the Beaches, Three Rivers Festival, canoe paddles, golf tournaments and other events, Sewell asked the council to reconsider the ordinance to give those involved time to discuss it more thoroughly.
“If the city keeps the unrestricted funds, the Board of Tourism is basically gone, it’s done, and it’s got no funds to operate on,” said Sewell, also noting that he would be out of a job.
Stone countered that the ordinance was researched well, and that the city is as much for the events and projects as the county.
“We can do the same thing as the county is doing, exactly the same thing,” Stone said, adding, “We’re not going to take away from the quality of life in this community. We’re going to try to add to it.”
The mayor also stated that the tax should have been levied by the city initially since the hotels are within the city limits. He, along with Ramay, asked that Smith go ahead with the first reading, with both reminding Sewell that a month would remain before the second reading in December, which would give plenty of time to discuss the ordinance with the county.
But Bloodworth agreed with Sewell and asked for a motion to table the matter. When he didn’t get a second, Stone declared the motion dead. Then, after a few seconds of quietness, Ward 3 Councilwoman Diane Leggett finally seconded, saying, “I would really like to know more about it.”
The final vote was 2-2, with Bloodworth and Leggett voting for tabling, and Stone and Ramay voting against it. Ramay then stated the motion failed for lack of majority, as Ward 1 Councilman Dywane Johnson was absent from the meeting. The first reading of the ordinance went on as planned.
In other action during both meetings, the council, with Leggett absent from Monday’s session ….
…. approved Nov. 11 as the official date for the annual Christmas parade and downtown events, known collectively as Hazlehurst Vintage Christmas.
…. after a nearly half-hour discussion in Monday night’s workshop regarding the rules and regulations that will control retail package sales of distilled spirits within the city limits, which would include among other things licensing requirements, application fees, signage at the premises, state registrations and employee background checks, listened during Thursday night’s meeting as City Attorney Ken W. Smith gave the first reading of the 24-page ordinance, with the second reading set for December’s regular meeting.
…. listened but made no formal motion after hearing Stone outline the need to have engineers give a cost analysis to reengineer the eroded spillway where approximately a million gallons of water a day treated at the wastewater treatment plant flow into the Ocmulgee River. Calling the spillway’s erosion “an emergency” situation, Stone added that the engineer would be in Hazlehurst on Nov. 19 to assess the repairs, and also the city would apply for a grant for the project, with engineering fees to be paid from that grant.
…. discussed the need for all department heads to attend monthly sessions to give reports and make requests to the council.
…. heard an update from Stone and Building and Code Inspector Charles Harrell on the soon-to-be-built Division of Driver Services facility, with both reporting that it will now be constructed on the Hazlehurst Bypass near Hazlehurst Mills instead of near the Georgia State Patrol post, as originally had been planned.
…. heard from several council members and audience members on the improvements at the city-owned Twisted Pine Golf Course and Civic Center, including the greens, fairways, flooring and kitchen, with Stone asking that the council consider leasing out both the golf course and restaurant to private individuals or companies.
…. briefly discussed the recent GDOT-recommended renovations and need for additional lighting at the headache-plagued roundabout at Pat Dixon Road and Collins Street.
…. heard a detailed plan from Deputy Clerk and Water Department Administrator Lorrie Williams to raise commercial garbage rates 13.5 percent; the council will take further action at the December regular meeting.
…. after hearing from Mandy Britt and Anna Weaver, regional planners from the Heart of Georgia Altamaha Regional Commission, approved a resolution to accept the Downtown Hazlehurst Master Plan that they prepared in association with the Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis County Joint Development Authority.
…. approved travel and meals for City Clerk Vernice Thompson to attend an advisory retreat Dec. 2-3 at Carl Vinson Institute of Government in Athens.
…. unanimously approved September’s departmental reports to council, water and sewer adjustments and check register for bills already paid.
…. in Citizens’ Comments, heard from John Ashley, who showered accolades on the golf course, calling it a “beautiful course,” adding that “it says something about a council, a city, and employees that are standing behind what they preach about and want to do as far as having a great city.”