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City faces shortfall and moves forward

Updated: May 13

By Deanna Ryan

During the May regular meeting steps were taken by Swainsboro city officials towards tackling projects that have long been in the works. Some motions were unanimous while others required a mayoral tie-breaker; still, all moved forward. All council members were present along with the mayor, city administrator and city attorney. The agenda was amended to include Mr. Dall Durden to speak on the alley problem at the Bellamy Building and to discuss the theater and gym projects.

Water hike down the pike

City Administrator Herman Middlebrooks addressed the council about the need for a water rate increase to meet Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) loan requirements. According to Middlebrooks, Jay Matthews with the Georgia Water Regional Association is working with the city to help determine the raised rates. The deadline for turning in a plan of action to GEFA is June 7th. Since the next city meeting is the 5th, Middlebrooks recommended the plan be presented then. Council woman Bobbie Collins asked about the amount of the increase. Middlebrooks noted more analysis was needed, but that currently the city water service is running at a $400-500,000 deficit. He said the goal would be to spread the increase out among all those being served.

Mayor Greg Bennett summarized, “We’re not taking enough in on water bills to actually pay for what it costs us.” Councilman Johnny Ray Stafford asked, “Where did we get such a decrease in our income?” Middlebrooks responded, “The expenses have been going up since Covid and the revenue has been staying the same.” Councilman Julian Sconyers asked about the effect of changing the late payment method on income. The administrator assured the council that every effort is being made to catch up on late payments. Councilman John E. Parker asked if the water department was in the red or the black. Middlebrooks said he would get back to the council on that.

No action was required. Stay tuned for the decision on the water rate increase next meeting.

Theater and gym projects on the move

Last year the city voted to split one million dollars of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds between the city’s theater and gym renovation projects, even though the mayor stated his vote was to put the money towards new water lines. The theater has a larger budget due to outside donations which total nearly one million dollars, but both projects are moving forward, just at different paces.

According to Mayor Bennett, BAK Builders confirmed that outside of a minimal cost for the removal of a 5x5 square of asbestos, the theater plans have been completed and the project is on budget. City Attorney Jon Levis let council know a company would have to get bids and comply with EPA and EPD requirements, and that all that was left was determining the cost. The mayor assured the council it was minimal.

The gym's budget and plans were more complicated. “The problem is we can fix the front of the gym with the bathrooms, refinish the floor, put a sprinkler system in, fix the exit doors, and it’s going to be about $500,000. Which is right on budget with what we had. The problem is fixing from the stage backwards, as was originally the plan, is not in the budget.” The gym with the bleachers has a capacity that would require the installation of more bathrooms to meet construction code. The estimate for fixing the entire gym, including bathrooms, was $900,000. Since there was not enough in the current budget for the original plan, the mayor proposed removing the bleachers to lower the capacity. Stafford asked if some of the bleachers could be taken out. The mayor said every single bleacher would have to be taken out. Sconyers mentioned many middle schools now have a gymnasium with a room full of chairs with room for people to sit around the wall. Parker voiced that he had not seen a gym without bleachers.

The gym has a rough draft, but no completed plan yet. Mayor Bennett asked for people to consider the purpose of the gym, “Is it for the kids for afterschool programs?” He suggested two classrooms and a covered outdoor gym could allow this to happen below the $500,000 budget. Sconyers voiced a concern that the area would be expensive to maintain.

Councilpersons Gregory Quarterman, Parker, and Sconyers volunteered to form a subcommittee to meet with the people in charge of running the gym and determine the purpose and scope of the project. They will then come back to share this with the council. A motion was made for the formation of the subcommittee and passed 6-0.

In order to start on the theater, the mayor said, BAK was waiting on the go ahead which would require a vote. Parker noted both projects were supposed to be done at the same time to save money. Mayor Bennett said even if they gave the go ahead today, it would be six to nine months before building could start; in that time the subcommittee could get plans in action for the gym. Councilperson Sconyers made a motion to start the theater project. The motion was tied with Davis, Sconyers and Staffored for and Collins, Quarterman and Parker against. Mayor Bennett broke the tie in favor of starting the theater.

Other matters in old business included the local Blight Ordinance. Attorney Jon Levis presented the first reading of the ordinance. He reminded the group that at the last meeting the ordinance was discussed and explained and stated the changes were being made to make city statutes compliant with Georgia Law. He also mentioned there would be a delay on moving it forward until the state had all of its changes in place on July 1st.

Revisiting Robin Road

In new business, Robin Road property owner Ms. Giselle White-Perry addressed the council, providing a disclaimer that she was not speaking for any other property owner other than herself. She thanked the council for the work that had been done up to that point. Even though White-Perry stated she was not an engineer, she had talked to engineers that deal with the wetland issues daily and have no vested interest in the outcome. After speaking at length with them and doing her own research, White-Perry suggested the council table spending money for a topographic map until further exploration was done regarding possible solutions that don’t require additional expenditures. She requested more specific information from previous contractors paid to perform work on Robin Road about what they have done to date. Finally, she suggested the city conduct an assessment of affected properties to determine the nature and extent to which the conditions have improved, been resolved or need to be resolved. White-Perry stated there is no one size fits all solution and it would benefit the city to build an awareness before spending money.

Parker stated, “We can do what Ms. Giselle White-Perry suggested with the people she has contacted.” Mayor Bennet asked for three councilpersons to volunteer to meet with administrator Middlebrooks and Chris Morton of Clearwater Solutions. Councilpersons Parker, Sconyers, and Quarterman volunteered. Parker made a motion that the subcommittee, along with the city administrator and Morton, talk with Robin Road residents to assess their individual issues. The motion passed 6-0.

Due to Ms. White-Perry’s suggestions for consideration, the council postponed consideration for engineering services for a topographic map for Robin Road.

Back on the Ballot: Sunday Alcohol Sales

Attorney Levis presented four proposed resolutions (PR) for Sunday alcohol sales to be decided by Swainsboro citizens on the November 2023 ballot. PR 2023-4 proposes a referendum for approval or denial of “on-premises consumption” of malt beverages, wine, and distilled spirits on Sundays between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and midnight. PR 2023-4.1 sets forth the effective date of January 1, 2024 for PR 2023-4. PR 2023-5 proposes a referendum for approval or denial of “package sales” of malt beverages, wine, and distilled spirits on Sundays between the hours of 12:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. While PR 2023-5.1 sets forth the effective date of January 1, 2024 for PR 2023-5 and allows for codification of the resolution into an ordinance at a later date.

Levis also stated that if the resolutions were approved, they needed to be provided to the election superintendent by no later than September 8, 2023 to ensure being placed on the ballot. Additionally, he noted, there must be at least 29 days between the date of approval of the referendum and placing the matter to a vote.

Parker motioned for a vote for both sets of proposed referendums. The council was split in half each time with Davis, Sconyers and Stafford voting against and Collins, Parker and Quarterman voting for the motions. Mayor Bennett broke the ties in favor of placing the referenda on the November ballot for Sunday alcohol sales.

In other new business, the council unanimously approved three items: the hiring of new firefighter Jacob Swingle; the purchase and installation of equipment for the new police car (to come from SPLOST funds); and Dal Durden’s request for the unopened alley that runs through the old Bellamy building. Council postponed the approval of the preliminary plat for a new subdivision located on Hwy 1 North.

Regarding the city’s limbs and debris, Chris Morton with Clearwater Solutions stated the price of grinding is currently $30.00 a ton with a thousand ton minimum and a frequency of six months. Mayor Bennett noted that the last time the city was charged $21.50 per ton and now it is $30.00. Morton said that’s correct and that the contract for service and prices have gone up. The