Vidalia approves budget

Published 12:02 am Friday, June 30, 2017

VIDALIA — Vidalia aldermen approved the town’s 2017-18 budget Thursday, but not without some residents and aldermen raising concerns. The approximately $38.9 million expenditures, $39 million revenues budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year passed with four of five votes, with Alderwoman Sabrina Doré voting no.

A concern from residents were employee benefits, in particular group medical insurance and retirement contributions, which added together is costing the town more than $1.45 million.

Alderman Tommy Probst said Vidalia employee benefits are out of whack with the region.

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“We pay way more per employee than any city in the area,” Probst said.

Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft said the argument for having good benefits is to help attract good people, but he said benefits are a big expense for the town. Craft said the town would examine ways to bring costs down, such as potentially switching insurance or changing retirement benefits.

Aldermen Jon Betts and Robert Gardner said they sat in during the budget process and did not have any concerns. Gardner said he also did not accept town insurance to save the town money.

Betts said he appreciated the work of the administrative team and department heads in putting the budget together.

“I support this budget that we have in place,” Betts said. “I think it is a good budget. It is a good start.”

Doré’s concerns included several items — last minute revisions, potential raises for employees and the potential to lower utility rates.

Town Accountant Debra Moak explained the revisions, some of which included money the town was not anticipating.

One item was Project Blue lease money, approximately $100,000 per month. The project is an undisclosed development project that would bring a new business into the town-owned former Fruit of the Loom building.

Currently, however, the town is only receiving $50,000 of the full $100,000 lease payment with the rest being applied to improvements made to the building and site.

Moak said the town would use some of that money to pay off a larger portion of the $2 million line of credit the town took on last year to help pay vendors owed by the previous administration, as well as inherited capital improvement projects. The town paid $200,000 of that debt in the 2016-17 budget.

Craft said he was hesitant to include Project Blue in the budget, but then he learned the lease portion was a binding document.

Doré asked if a portion of the $428,700 in capital outlay funds being dedicated to purchasing machinery and equipment could be put toward giving employees a 76-cent per hour raise, which including the 30-cent per hour raise given by the previous administration would bring employee pay up by $1 per hour.

“I sat in on those department head meetings, too,” Doré said. “I kept waiting for one supervisor, one department head, to say my guys took some financial hits during this administration. I was disappointed not one supervisor or department head mentioned what I am hearing from employees on a weekly basis.”

Doré said another of her concerns is employees have not been getting the amount of overtime hours they had become accustomed to receiving.

Craft, who pointed out that Doré was one of the aldermen who previously requested the town look into high amounts of overtime pay, said officials discovered the town had for years allowed employees to use vacation toward overtime. Craft said the town had to stop the illegal overtime practice.

Some residents also suggested they would rather see town employees receive merit raises rather than automatic raises.

To help lower high utility bills for residents, Doré suggested instead of paying off a large amount of the line of credit debt this year the town could instead put $643,000 to subsidize the power adjustment cost.

“The people are begging for a reduction in utilities. I hate to hear repeatedly that it is going to take time,” Doré said. “The time is now. It can be done now. But it is not being made top priority, as I feel it should be.”

Craft said a risk with not paying off a line of credit is it matures in a year and the interest rate could go up. Craft said he thinks people in the town would agree to getting rid of the debt then lowering rates.

“The progress we have made in one year has been astounding,” Craft said. “Everyone knew this was going to be a timed process.

“You can’t go in and do some things and not know what the effects would be. I would love to pay off the debt, lower utilities and increase everyone’s pay, but then the town would be broke.”

Doré said she was also concerned about approving a budget knowing changes would be forthcoming.

“I voted ‘no’ simply because the mayor stated he planned to present another budget in as little as two months,” she said. “I cannot accept that the budget presented today is the best possible budget with the knowledge that he will be asking for an amendment in two months.”

Craft said the town is obligated by law to pass a budget by June 30. Craft said the changes coming include the possibility of the company behind Project Blue fully committing to the town and possible hydroelectric funds.

“To hold up the town, put it out of compliance for something that we do not know is going to happen or not, that is not being reasonable,” Craft said. “That argument should not hold water with the people in the town.”

As residents in attendance started to plea for the town to pass a budget after almost two hours at the meeting, Alderman Tron McCoy made the motion to adopt the budget. Craft said he was happy to see the budget approved, though he was disappointed it was not unanimous.

“Thank you to the aldermen who supported it,” Craft said. “It was the right thing to do with all the work that was put into it.

“It is a team effort. We are going to continue to do the work of the town — what is best for the common good of the people.”