City Council Meeting 02-06-2018

Here are the highlights from the  February 6, 2018 meeting of the Lyons City Council:

  1. We reviewed the financial statements for the calendar year just ended.
  2. Director Michele Johnson updated us on the activities of the Toombs-Montgomery Chamber of Commerce.
  3. The Council rejected all bids on repairing and expanding the NE Wastewater Treatment Plant and returned to the drawing board to find a more affordable solution.
  4. The Mayor announced his new committee appointments.
  5. A proposed Ordinance to amend the Lyons City Charter regarding personnel policies was read for the first time.
  6. The Council purchased two new police vehicles from Woody Folsom Auto Group in Vidalia.
  7. Public Comments – The Council heard from the following individuals during the public comment portion
    1. John Nail – Mr. Nail is the new local manager of Republic Services, with whom the city contracts for waste disposal and trash pickup services, introduced himself and told the Council about the management change.
    2. Adam Copeland – This young man was attending the meeting to qualify for his “Communications” award in Boy Scouts.
    3. Emory Mixon – Was seeking a permit to drill a well within the city to water his pecan orchard.

Thoughts on the financial statements:

The December 2017 financial report was distributed for the review of the Councilmen; however, as I did not come on the Council until January 1, 2018, I was not in a position to understand too much about the report. I’ll have more to say next month.

I did notice that the sales tax collections from our three sources: Local Option Sales Tax (LOST), Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) and Transportation Special Puropose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) did not follow the same monthly trend. In December, the SPLOST declined whereas the LOST and TSPLOST increased. That struck me as odd, since all three types of these taxes are collected at the same time. I asked the City Manager to check with the Department of Revenue, who distributes the tax to cities, and inquire about the anomaly.

Rejection of Bids for NE Wastewater Treatment Plant Repair and Expansion

When I was elected to the city council, it did not take long for me to realize I had arrived center stage to a massive infrastructure problem that needed solving right away and could impact the city for decades to come. Lyons, it appears, has a major sewage problem … and it was clear to me I had precious little time to make the right decision on behalf of those I represent. Here is a brief overview of what I have found so far:

There is no question that our two wastewater treatment plants are in need of repairs. Both were designed to last 20 years and are now in their 30th year of operation. I recently accompanied the City Manager to tour both facilities and it was clearly apparent that the two systems are approaching the end of their useful life.

Unfortunately, it may not be just a matter of repair. There is an additional consideration of the adequacy of these facilities to meet the growth needs of the city going forward. According to information provided to me by the City Manager, the two plants have a combined permitted capacity to treat 1,340,000 gallons of sewage a day and are currently operating at about 63% capacity. If it was just the residents and businesses of Lyons using the plants, they would only be operating at about 48% of capacity. The difference is due to wastewater coming from the industries located in the Industrial Park.

Again, that sounds manageable, and it would be, if our two systems were interconnected. They are not. The SE plant generally serves the business and residents south of the railroad tracks and the NE serves the business, residential and INDUSTRIAL users on the north side of the railroad tracks. In other words, adding in our industrial users, our NE plant is operating at about 70% of capacity while our SE plant is operating at only 55% capacity.

Our Industrial Park is home to only two industries and both are food product manufacturers. I understand that the Toombs County Development Authority is currently negotiating with a third company that also makes food products that is considering locating in our park, which would further impact our sewage treatment capacity. As a matter of fact, that company’s primary concern is whether we can meet their sewage needs.

A city official should always be concerned with creating a favorable environment for job growth. Toward that end, I recently toured the county with several staff members of the Toombs County Development Authority, including the Director, and learned that Toombs County has two primary sites where the counties industries are located, the industrial park south of Vidalia and the industrial park located north of Lyons.

It is noteworthy that, to my understanding, all of the industries located in the Vidalia Industrial Park make widgets of one kind or another and produce very little sewage, whereas all the industries located in the Lyons Industrial Park make food products and produce a lot of sewage. Thus, while both sites produce much needed jobs, the industries that are located in Lyons have a much higher relative impact on our infrastructure than those located in Vidalia have on that city’s infrastructure, and our pocketbook is a good bit smaller than Vidalia’s.

I am still investigating as to why our location is preferred by food manufacturers instead of widget makers. Perhaps it is our easy direct access to I-16 and from there, the Savannah ports … perhaps it is the easier access to a major four lane highway (US # 1) and the lower density of traffic on that highway … perhaps it is because once one food manufacturer locates in an area, it attracts other food manufacturers … perhaps it is just the luck of the draw. I just have not yet been able to make that determination, but while we certainly welcome the job growth these industries bring, it causes concern that the city in Toombs County that is least able to afford the infrastructure impact is the one the food industry prefers.

The reason this is relevant to our deliberations on how to solve our sewage treatment problem is that a solution that will fully accommodate our current industrial park residents and prospective residents is a relatively large expense for Lyons and leaves the city vulnerable should one of our industrial tenants fall upon hard times or decide another location is more advantageous to their bottom line. It is also worthy of note that one of our industries is in the 8th year of their 10 year property tax abatement and there is a risk that when their tax abatement ends, they may decide it is time to move on (I should note that I have not met or talked with any of the company’s representatives about their future plans.)

But if the Council accepted the current low bid to repair and expand our North Sewage Treatment Plant, borrowed money to fund the project, started making the necessary debt payments, and then one of our major industries closes or moves, our residents would be, by the City Manager’s estimate provided to me, immediately faced with almost a doubling of their water and sewage bills until the debt is retired or until we got another big water user in the Industrial Park that could help service the debt.

Now I know all of this sounds complicated, but let me put it in very simple terms that everyone should be able to understand … it sure got my attention. The proposal the City was considering would require the City of Lyons to borrow a sum of money of such magnitude that it will take us 30 years to retire the debt … and this bid is for a sewage treatment facility that is only designed to last 20 years. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out, that just means we can’t afford this particular approach to solving our sewage problem.

That is an eye opener and I was just not willing to ask the people I represent to assume that type of debt or face that type of risk. A new approach was needed to find a solution to our sewage problem that was more affordable.

Now I have good news on that front. As I posted in my last blog, the Mayor, Councilman Moore and I recently traveled to Atlanta to meet with the Executive Director of the Georgia Municipal Association, Mr. Larry Hanson, who, when faced with a problem similar to ours, seized upon a new approach called “design-build” to solve the city’s sewage problem. We became convinced after talking with him that the traditional approach that we had been following thus far was not getting us where we needed to be.

To reiterate on my last blog, the concept of “design-build” is simple. Instead of having our engineer design a wastewater plant and then requests bids to build the design, which is the approach that cities all across this state have used for years, you tell the design-build companies what your sewage handling needs are and ask them to propose an innovative engineering solution that they think will meet our needs and fit within our budget. It worked for Valdosta and many other cities and I am hoping it will work for us.

So I made a motion to reject the bids and try the design-build approach. Here was my motion:

“I move that the Council reject all bids on the expansion of the North Wastewater Treatment Plant, that we abandon the design that has been submitted by our engineer, and that we authorize the Mayor to direct the city’s staff to seek new requests for proposals from design-build firms containing their own engineering designs and the guaranteed maximum price thereof for an affordable Wastewater Treatment System that will meet our sewage treatment needs for the next 20 years.”

I will keep you posted on this important project as we move forward.

Thoughts on the Mayor’s Appointments to Committees

The Mayor appointed me to the following committees:

  • Public Safety (Police and Fire Departments)
  • Policy (Charter, Ordinances, Resolutions & Policies)
  • Liaison to Lyons Main Street Program (Promotion of downtown development, historic preservation and administration of quality of life programs like the Real Squeal, Soapbox Derby, and Tales From the Altamaha)

Thoughts on Amendment to the Charter Regarding Personnel Policies

Amendments to the City’s Charter have to be read twice and this was the first reading of the proposed Ordinance to change the Charter relative to personnel policies. This change was actually proposed last year, but it was not advertised properly and had to be redone. Since the Mayor has appointed me to the Policy Committee, this measure has fallen in my lap.

From my first read of the policy, I am glad it didn’t go into effect, as I have some concerns about whether it will accomplish what the city wanted to do the way it is written. As it has been explained to me, the goal was to give the City Manager greater flexibility in the hiring, firing, promoting, demoting, setting of compensation levels, etc. of employees. However, the way it is written, it appears to give the City Manager unrestricted authority over the personnel employed by the city and strips the Council of any authority.

I think the effort was to take some of the specific personnel policy out of the Charter and move them to the Personnel Policies section of the City Code, so as to remove all conflicts between the two. Since the Council sets the personnel policies by Ordinance, the thinking went, the Council would retain control over the personnel policies. However, the amendment does not remove all the specifics of the personnel policy from the Charter. It leaves language giving the City Manager the authority to hire, fire, promote, demote and set compensation levels. And since the City’s Charter trumps the City’s Code, any change to the Personnel Policies in the code would be null and void if they conflicted with the Charter.

As I read it, the proposed change transfers more power from the Council to the City Manager than was intended. If my concerns have merit, which the City Attorney should be able to advise when our Policy Committee meets with him soon to review the proposed change, I will be proposing an amendment to the Ordinance to make sure it carries out the City’s original intent and leaves with the Council the authority to set the Personnel Policies that the City Manager must follow.

Thoughts of Purchase of Two New Police Cruisers

This was a “carry-over” item from the 2017 budget year. Although funds were budget last year for the purchase of two vehicles, after we had purchased one, we became eligible for a grant of $44,000, provided we put up another $36,000 of local funds. Purchasing just one more vehicle would not be a large enough outlay of local funds to qualify for the grant.

Rather than lose the grant, I voted yes on a budget amendment to add $10,306.90 to qualify for the grant. Thus we were able to purchase two new vehicles instead of one by adding this amount to the budget.

Thoughts on Our Boy Scout Visitor

I got an opportunity to speak to a young man named Adam Copeland before the meeting. He was dressed in his Boy Scout uniform and told me he was attending the City Council meeting to qualify for a “Communications” award from the scouts (a necessary step on his way to getting an Eagle Scout designation). Learning how their local government works is a very important step to becoming a good citizen and I laude the Boy Scouts for encouraging their scouts to attend meetings such as ours.

Screenshot 2018-02-07 09.00.23

Looking at Brett Copeland’s (Adam’s father) Facebook Page,  it shows Adam is very active in community service. Here he is (in the middle of the above photo) with two of his scouting buddies in one of our parades. I wish him well in his quest to become an Eagle Scout!

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