For its 2014 visioning session, the Cartersville City Council came to grips with three long-running issues requiring attention: the Douthit Ferry Road widening project, a city festival ordinance and what to do about funding for parks and recreation projects.
The council began the second day of the visioning session Saturday morning at the Cartersville Public Library, ranking the important short- and long-term goals, including software upgrades, replacement of vehicles and marketing the city, among other issues. That finished, they tackled a list of hot topics compiled by moderator Chrissy Marlowe, a public service assistant with the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
After talking about appointments to the Historical Preservation Commission and Development Authority, the council came to the issue of financing the purchase of right of way down Douthit Ferry Road. Assistant City Attorney Keith Lovell said the price tag for right of way acquisition was now approximately $3.9 million.
While discussing how to finance the amount, Mayor Matt Santini said the council needed to give the Georgia Department of Transportation some indication of what the city wanted to do with the project. He also noted that even if Cartersville did buy the right of way, there was no guarantee the project would go through in the near future, as the predicted traffic along the road may not justify the project.
“Again, once we do everything we’re supposed to do, and it goes down into when it’s competing with other projects at the state level that are two-lane roads that have traffic counts of 25,000 cars a day, and our project is going to sit on a shelf,” he said.
Council member Jayce Stepp said the city needed to move forward with purchasing right of way to keep the project going.
“I’ll tell you where I am. I understand Matt’s concern, but that was one thing when I first came on the council I was like, ‘Why are we worrying about stuff 10, 15 years from now? I want something to happen today.’ Now, Douthit Ferry and all these other projects, you just think, OK, it’s going to happen, but it’s going to be 15 years from now, who knows, Tabernacle moves out there, we’ve got another residential area out there,” he said. “Let’s say it all comes to a head, then we’re sitting here, OK, now that 30,000 a day that we said was going to be there is there and we haven’t done anything.”
Council member Lori Pruitt said she had heard the Georgia Department of Transportation wanted to move forward and widen Douthit Ferry Road. She asked if there was any possibility of working with the state to fund the right of way acquisition. It was later noted during the session that the agreement was for Cartersville to do the engineering and acquire the right of way, while state and federal departments of transportation fund the construction.
As the council debated about using some remaining 2003 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds to help with purchasing right of way, they began to look ahead to putting the project on the 2020 SPLOST.
“Honestly, I think if we gave them that answer it might solve the problem,” Santini said. “If we said — look, of course, who knows if any of us will be sitting here when we do the 2020 SPLOST list, but, again, and I agree with your point about putting it on the ... last SPLOST versus the [Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax]. We kind of got snookered by the T-SPLOST because you couldn’t have put a project of that size on the SPLOST list and then have it on the T-SPLOST at the same time. It didn’t make [sense].”
Moving down the list, the debate of how to handle events serving alcohol within the city limit returned.
“There were three issues that were left on the table. One was a festival ordinance, which we drafted a new one and sent to y’all. The second one was food sales, which I think y’all didn’t vote on, but was basically leave it alone. And then the third one was adding wine tasting,” Lovell said.
Santini said he had never seen the festival ordinance, and council members said they had not seen it either. Lovell said he would send it back to City Manager Sam Grove so the council could handle it during an upcoming meeting.
“Basically I think the revised version, if my memory was right, is they would submit a plan and y’all would approve, or staff would approve — I don’t remember which way it was — the area of location for that. I think we wanted to keep it broad enough that if somebody wanted to have a festival out in Sam Smith Park they could have the festival out there,” Lovell said.
Lovell added that under the proposed ordinance the city would have to act as a sponsor for any festival serving alcohol.
Council member Kari Hodge said she supported the ordinance.
“The impact of a festival ordinance downtown in general is going to bring a lot more people into town than you typically see. I know that’s not necessarily a positive or a negative, but you have to remember there are certain times that parents don’t want to bring their kids down there for just children’s events and they like to enjoy a glass of wine while they’re listening to the bands play,” she said. “I think it gives us an opportunity to take it one step ahead. It’s not necessarily for us to have a college brawl down there by any stretch, but it just brings Cartersville into 2014, in my opinion.”
The session then turned toward the question of how to finance improvements in parks and recreation. When discussing the possibility of calling for a bond referendum on the matter, Pruitt questioned if Cartersville could pay for it.
“What I understand the plan is, it’ll be a bond offering,” she said. “It’ll be repaid with tax revenue, but if we don’t have the money year to year to pay for these things in our general fund tax revenue, how are we going to have it other than we now have a financial obligation to do that, so you’re going to have to pay for that.”
Lovell and Grove said the city would have to raise the millage rate to pay for any parks and recreation bond.
“Basically what you are required to do by law is if you do the bond referendum method, there is a bond schedule payment that goes with that,” Lovell said. “You have to place on the millage the appropriate mills to make that annual bond payment based upon your digest and revenue. So you will do that. That stays on the digest and revenue until the bonds are paid off.”
Lovell said any millage rate increase used to pay off a recreation bond would be marked specifically for that purpose until the bond is paid off. After the bond is paid off, he explained, the city council has the option of rolling that increase off the millage rate or leaving the increase in place and using the extra revenue in the general fund. Other options, Lovell continued, include a hybrid combination of bond and millage financing or raising the millage rate and budgeting the money for parks and recreation.
“So, I mean, if you raise the millage you can publicly go out and say, ‘We’re raising the millage and we’re going to use that money to build new ballfields.’ Now, legally you can use that money for anything you want to, because it’s not dedicated. ... But you say, ‘We’re raising the millage to generate $600,000 of income next year and that $600,000 is to be spent on X. So prepare the budget accordingly, staff,’” Lovell said.
After further discussion on financing any improvements, the council settled on the idea of a referendum on the November ballot to give residents the ability to voice their opinion.
“Let’s ask the community if it’s important to them, and if they come back and say it’s not worth the tax dollars to do it, then we ought not to be trying to make the decision and trying to scrape up — maybe we do have to pull the plug on some things we’ve already invested in. I’d hate to see that happen, but to me that’s the way you find out,” Santini said.
Saturday’s session came a day after the council sat down with all of the city department heads to directly hear their concerns. Such direct communication, and the ability to focus on issues over a two-day period, are valuable, Grove said.
“As I jokingly said to one of the council folks, the good thing is we know what the problems are. The bad thing is we know what the problems are. They don’t seem to be changing a whole lot and the challenges that we have, we just need to figure out a way to crack them,” he said. “Particularly if you can see in the policy decision discussion, there’s mention of Douthit Ferry Road, there’s mention of what we do with the alcohol ordinances, there’s mention of the referendum on parks and we’ve been discussing those for a while. This helps move it down the road a little bit and helps us to update what we think’s important.”
Santini believed the council’s discussion and opinions on policy would inform the city’s actions for the rest of the year.
“It’s time well spent and it’s really beneficial. The work that’s done here today and yesterday kind of carries us through the rest of the year — to make sure we’re on the same page, that we all have a deeper understanding of what’s important, what that shared vision is for the city of the Cartersville,” he said.