City leaders look toward new year

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 1, 2012 

After a year in office spent in large part dealing with problem areas, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson expects 2012 to deal with “issues that will define this administration.”

Commissions that have studied city revenue and blighted areas are set to present reports to the city early in the year, she said. In addition, Tomlinson said she expects to tackle the city’s solid waste management, an aging vehicle fleet and property tax disparity, among other issues.

“To me, 2011 was cleaning up some issues and putting the train on the track, building the confidence the citizens have in their city government and setting a tone of fairness and structure we can now build on,” wrote Tomlinson, who was sick last week, in an e-mail. “By closing out the Parks and Rec issue, dealing with the prison and the Civic Center, getting dramatic results with our Copper Theft Task Force, parsing our city budget, etc., we set a tone that we can do better, and we will.”

Tomlinson was referring to the culmination of a long investigation into the Parks and Recreation Department, which ended with three criminal convictions, and to the retirements of Civic Center Director Dale Hester and Muscogee County Prison Warden Bill Adamson and subsequent investigations of those facilities.

Looking ahead, Tomlinson said she expects commissions she appointed to review city revenue and blighted neighborhoods to present their first reports in January or February.

“These are the areas where our schools struggle, where crime is too familiar and community has been torn apart,” she said. “Through this discussion we are going to see that we can’t afford to throw our limited land or human resources away. We have to implement creative, innovative solutions. Sitting on our hands is no longer an option. We are not making any more land in Muscogee County. This discussion is going to determine our city’s economic future.”

Part of the revenue commission’s report will deal with addressing the inequities created by the city’s property tax assessment freeze, but not necessarily with a basic service fee that the city’s Charter Review Commission is expected to recommend, she said.

“We need to address our property tax disparity in a way that protects everyone that currently enjoys the valuation freeze,” she said. “That can be done without instituting a user fee. We really need to start talking about correcting systematic issues, not just trying to paint over the cracks in the wall.”

Another issue Tomlinson expects the city to tackle is its aging fleet of vehicles, for which there is no plan in place to replace. She called that situation “unacceptable.”

“We can’t just go along anymore on a wing and a prayer that our hundreds of city vehicles that are beyond their recommended life will continue to function,” she said. “We have over $30 million in vehicles in need of replacement. These are vehicles that run this city -- that provide services everyday to our citizens.”

Tomlinson also said some ideas she raised this year may reappear in 2012, among them cutting garbage pickup from twice to once a week, as is common in most cities, and scaling back on subsidies for some public facilities, such as golf courses and the Civil War Naval Museum.

At-large Councilor Judy Thomas said she would not be surprised to see some of the cost-cutting ideas that faltered in 2011 come back in 2012 and get consideration from council.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” she said. “We’re going to have to make some more tough decisions on what we fund and don’t fund. I believe councilors will take a look at each of these issues with a real hard eye when they are presented and search for the right answer.

“It’s not an easy thing to do to tell somebody who’s had a subsidy that you’re no longer going to have one. It’s not an easy thing to do to cut services and not cut the cost of those. But sometimes those things are necessary for the bigger picture.”

Veteran Councilor Red McDaniel said he doubts council will embrace once-a-week garbage pickup or a $500 basic service fee.

“We tried (cutting garbage pickup) once before years ago and we got bombarded,” McDaniel said. “I don’t think council wants to do that again.”

As for the service fee, he said he would support putting it on a referendum, but not enacting it by ordinance. He also said he thinks council will ultimately vote to put Sunday alcohol sales on a ballot in 2012.

“I think we should let the people decide that,” he said. “Regardless of how I feel about it, I think we should let the voters decide.”

Thomas, too, expects council to vote to put the question to the public.

In retrospect, Tomlinson said she is satisfied with her administration’s performance in 2011.

“Honestly, I’m very comfortable with the way the year unfolded, and I’m very proud of the way we handled a number of challenges that came our way,” she wrote. “2011 went well and now we are positioned to do some great things in 2012-2014 -- or should I say through 2018, if the Columbus voters so choose.”

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