After six weeks, the City of Americus addresses budget questions

Published 10:55 am Monday, February 6, 2023

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Tracy K. Hall

During the November meeting of Americus Mayor and City Council, in closing comments, Nelson Brown mentioned a “Thanksgiving bonus” the City of Americus employees had received. No such topic had been brought up for discussion during an open meeting. As time passed, the issue began to come to light.

In a “group consensus” reached via text and/or email the mayor and city council approved $385, 510.63 to be given to city employees. This was funded out of the general budget because expenses were lower than expected while revenues were greater.  Specifically, there were extra dollars in personnel. Although there was no vote taken on the item, in December of 2022 the council did ratify a vote post the award of $2,374 for each full-time employee and $1,000 for each part-time employee. While the intent was ratified during a public meeting there was no time given for the public to make comments or ask questions before the incentives were given to the employees, as the incentive was given in November. This is particularly important as monies used were tax dollars.

This is the second of incentives given to employees. In summer of 2022, employees received a “great resignation incentive” out of federal funding known as American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), which was granted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These dollars are federal dollars which citizens also pay. At this time, $389,088.35 was paid in incentives. The formula for disbursing these funds was more complex and it was indicated the incentive was determined by the salary of the employee. The City of Americus employees have received $774,598.98 in incentives during 2022. The “great resignation” incentive was with ARPA funds, and the second incentive or “Thanksgiving bonus” was paid out of the general budget. ARPA funds are derived from our federal tax dollars, the general fund is generated with our local tax dollars. In addition to these incentives, the 2023 budget has a 5% salary increase (not merit based) for all employees and 2 holidays were added to the calendar in 2022—Juneteenth and Good Friday—giving the employee 13 holidays in addition to the vacation accrued. Additionally, premium upcharges on insurance will be covered by the city as well.

It is not usual to have surplus in the budget by the end of the year. Such was the case in 2020 and 2021. In these cases, the employees were also given an incentive, however the citizens were also considered in use of the funds. The council of 2020 rolled back taxes on behalf of citizens in a public meeting. The council of 2021 was also able to reduce a proposed tax rate in a public meeting. Additionally, an incentive was also given to the COA employees both years and a 5% raise in 2021. This too was approved in a public meeting.  The council of 2022 kept the tax rate the same, however there was no budgeted increase, nor was there a rollback. The 2022 council did not vote publicly on incentives until after it was given to the employees. Taxes and other utilities for citizens are to remain the same with the exception of garbage fees increasing 3% on top of an additional monthly flat fee. In asking the city if they put any consideration towards the citizens in form of a financial incentive, such as relief on the garbage fees or a consideration of a tax rate change; or an additional project being taken on—such as potholes, paving, park development, beautification projects, ongoing community maintenance–there was no response.

By way of the surplus, the City of Americus reports there was an “analyzed amount of $391, 998.09 available for additional use.” It is unknown where the remaining surplus will go, with $385,510.63 being paid out in incentives.

ARPA funds have been paid out over two years, 2021 and 2022. In 2022, the City of Americus (COA) received $2,820,938.00 on July 17, 2022. The first payment was the same in 2021 making the total ARPA funds received, $5,641,876.00 In 2021 council set 11 project goals with the first half of the ARPA funds. Some of these have been completed, others remain outstanding. The projects identified in 2021 are indicated with an asterisk (*). It is unknown what projects the 2022 council identified the money to go towards, however items such as city hall furniture, COVID 19 testing kits, incentive day off, retention incentives and other items not marked with an asterisk are not included in the 2021 plan. Over 2021 and 2022, the following projects have been identified and their levels of completion noted.

1. Website (Researching and speaking with vendors). No estimated cost given.

2. KIOSK Machine (Researching and speaking with vendors). No estimated cost given.

*3. Software (Demo scheduled 01/25/2023). Estimated cost was $1.5 million in 2021.

*4. Applicant Tracking/NEOGOV (Implementation in process). These were 2 separate items in 2021 and the estimated cost was a combined $35, 000.

*5. Performance Appraisal Software (Implementation in process). Estimated cost was $10,000 in 2021.

*6. Open Records (Implementation in process). Estimated cost was $4,000 in 2021.

*7. Cemetery Software (GIS completed). Funds reallocated to radio equipment (radios ordered). Estimated cost in 2021 was $15,000.

*8. Main Street Downtown and Map (no completion status given). Estimated cost in 2021 was $4,000.

*9. Visitor brochures (Completed). Estimated cost in 2021 was $5,000.

*10. Lester Lane storm drain infrastructure (Not completed).  In 2021, the estimate for the project was approximately $1.2 million. This estimate, as with all 2021 estimates are likely to be higher due to labor and cost increases.

11. Eight fogging machines (Completed). No final cost given.

12. City Hall furniture (Completed). No final cost given.

13. Incentive Day Off (Completed). No final cost given.

14. 5% Hazard Pay (Completed). No final cost given.

15. Covid -19 tests kits. No completion status nor estimate given.

*16. Trolley (Completed). Estimated cost was $200,000 in 2021. No total cost given.

*17. Banners for downtown (Completed). No total cost given.

18. Main Street lighting (no note on the completion status given). Significant improvements to Main Street lighting were approved 8/2021. It is unknown what council has identified as needing additional upgrades for 2022 and 2023 and no estimate was given.

19. CCTV project (Completed). Finance Department will take the funds allocated to the CCTV project back before council at a future meeting to request the funds be reallocated to the Church Street project. The CCTV project started in 2020/2021 with majority of funds coming from a revenue bond. This project ensures the city is aware of leaks/vulnerabilities in the sewer line. Estimated and actual costs of this project were not given.

20. Retention Incentive (Completed). As part one of an incentive payment, this cost was $389, 088.35. The second incentive came out of the general fund.

This information has been sought since December 9, 2022. The information was delivered on the evening of January 24 after many attempts to contact both elected and city employees. The initial questions, which the ATR has typically been able to get the answers to immediately if not within 24 hours, was met with instructions to file an open records request. After the city did not respond to the request, the ATR filed a complaint with Georgia’s Attorney General’s Office. The COA attorney contacted the ATR and relayed the appropriate way to get a response from the city, which would demand making another, document specific, open records request. Being the ATR typically can get answers such as the ones sought from an elected or the city manager, the ATR contacted Diadra Powell, the city manager, and the entire council with several more opportunities to answer the questions. While Council Members Christmas, Smith and Mayor Kinnamon responded with concern and willingness to the requests, the answers were not made available until January 24, 2023, six weeks and 4 days after the initial questions were posed. The COA answered all questions posed with the exception of what the plan is for the minimal surplus funds remaining and if the citizens at large would be benefitting from the surplus.