During 2017, Villa Rica took several steps forward in a long-term goal of evolving into one of west Georgia’s fastest growing cities — although not without some periods of drama.
It was a year that saw one city manager depart and another take office; a controversial rate hike for city utilities; the end of senior discounts on rates and taxes as they were previously known; and the laying of plans with the potential for remaking the downtown area into a pedestrian friendly, thriving center of commerce and tourism.
An upheaval in city management began Feb. 16, when City Council voted to terminate the contract of David Milliron, its city manager of only two years. No specific reason has ever been given for Milliron’s involuntary departure, but the council’s move set in motion the search for the city’s eighth manager in less than a decade.
At first, an interim manager was appointed to cull through the many applications the city received, but that appointment was abruptly ended when it seemed African-American applicants were being unfairly screened. An executive search firm took up the job, and it was not until July that a new city manager was hired.
Tom Barber, the former manager in Fairburn, was given the job at a time the city was experiencing growing pains. Villa Rica’s population in 2000 was only 4,134; but by 2010 it had increased some 238 percent, to just under 14,000. Now, the city is just over 15,000 and is still experiencing a period of rapid growth. Carrollton, by contrast, has essentially maintained its population of 27,000 for the past three years.
Because of that growth, the city is paying the price for deferring problems related to its infrastructure and city services. Barber and his staff spent 2017 devising new ways to increase and improve city services to meet demands that will peak in early midcentury.
One of the staff’s first innovations was announced in August, when the city committed to becoming one of the few partially self-insured cities in the Southeast. The city voted to sever ties with its previous insurance carrier, which each year had demanded a premium increase regardless of the types of claims filed by city employees.
The city now hopes to save considerable money by banking whatever savings it might earn through wellness programs for employees, instead of handing those savings back to a major insurance provider. A series of contracts with smaller providers will mean a temporary increase in city premiums, but city staff believe the move will save much more in the long term.
The city also made a major move to end its dependence in consultants in various fields, by hiring its own city engineer, computer technology expert and building inspector. The goal of having city staff in those positions is to save the thousands of dollars it costs each year to hire outside consultants to the same kind of work. For example, the city had budgeted $50,000 to work with an outside information technology firm, but now expects its in-house IT staffer to provide three to four times that company’s level of service, with the additional advantage of having someone on site to help city departments with computer issues.
Also in 2017, the city worked to get its financial house in order by altering the city’s utility billing cycle. Previously, residents got their water, sewer and sanitation bills on the 15th of every month. The new system adopted in October staggers the payment due-dates across neighborhoods, which means there is a more even workflow among city staff and a shorter cut-off date for non-payers. That means those who find it difficult to pay their bills don’t accrue an even larger reconnection fee.
In September, the Council voted to change the city’s fiscal year to run from October-September, instead of the current term that tracks the calendar year. Because most of the city’s revenues — property taxes — aren’t collected until the end of the calendar year, the new fiscal year means the city can better project its revenues and more efficiently plan expenditures.
Shifting to a new fiscal year means that the 2018 budget the city staff spend much of 2017 working on will only run from January through September. That $20 million budget, adopted on Dec. 5, takes an aggressive approach to solving an enduring problem in city finances: subsidizing the underperforming water-sewer “enterprise fund.”
All city utility services are enterprise funds, which are supposed to generate their own operating capital, just as if they were private businesses. But because all these services — especially on the water-sewer side — do not generate enough fees to pay for themselves, the city has had to shift money from its general fund to support them.
The situation is more acute with the water-sewer enterprise fund, in part, because a portion of its revenue is supposed to be paying down the $34 million revenue bond that built its second wastewater treatment plant. The city now shells out $1.7 million a year to make that payment, but in 2020 that bond payment soars to $2 million.
At that point, city officials fear that the city’s revenues could not pay for city operations — at least not without either a significant tax hike, or a cut in services to the growing city.
Early in 2017, the city contracted with a financial consulting firm to conduct a top-down review of how utility fees should be adjusted. After several months of study, the company recommended that water revenue needs to be raised 20 percent; sewer revenue raised 75 percent; and sanitation and waste revenue increased 32 percent to afford the costs of providing those services.
Those rate increases are to be spread out between now and 2020, with the first round of rate hikes going into effect after Feb. 1.
Incorporated into the new rate structure is a change in the senior discount offered to residents aged 65 and over. Previously, all seniors were entitled to a discount; now, it will be available only to those who are titleholders of the residence, and who have an income of $24,120 or less.
Local legislation and politics
Villa Rica seniors also face a change in their property tax discount. Up until late 2016, all seniors on the Carroll County side of the city could receive an exemption regardless of their income. But those on the Douglas County side could only claim an exemption if they made $10,000 or less after retirement benefits.
In 2004, the council adopted an ordinance allowing for tax relief for seniors based on income, but over time — and for unknown reasons — Carroll tax officials began applying it universally. Because of that fact, and because the measure was unconstitutionally passed as an ordinance instead of a referendum, it was declared void.
City officials scrambled to approve a new senior exemption, then to get the state Legislature to approve a referendum early this year for the March primary. But although the legislation was passed in record time, it was found that the exemption could not be for the current tax year. In November, however, voters in both counties approved the new discount, which now allows all seniors to take a $8,000 homestead exemption on their 2018 tax bills.
Also in November, the city held elections that saw incumbent Ward 3 Councilwoman Leslie McPherson and Ward 5 incumbent Danny Carter return to the council. Ward 4 Councilman Gil McDougal, also up for re-election, faced no opponent in his race.
The special legislation to approve the senior tax referendum was adopted by the 2017 General Assembly, in which former Mayor J. Collins began his first term as the new representative for House District 68. Collins, who served 12 years as mayor, won the seat in 2016 and began his term when the Legislature convened in early January. He serves on the committees for Governmental Affairs, Juvenile Justice and Public Safety and Homeland Security.
The Legislature also approved local legislation that raised the hotel-motel excise tax in both Villa Rica and Carrollton from 5 to 8 percent. The excise, which is assessed on visitors to the city’s inns, will provide increased revenue for tourism projects designed to attract more visitors to both cities.
Two large industries in Villa Rica announced major expansions in 2017, both of which will bring new jobs to the area.
In November, Sugar Foods announced a $53 million new investment in its plant, with more than 50 jobs expected within five years. Also, Southwire earlier this month announced a $20 million expansion of its facility, which company officials said will bring 60 high-paying jobs to the area.
When those new residents arrive, they may see a significantly different downtown Villa Rica than currently exists. In 2017, the city began laying plans for two projects that could transform the area.
In June, the city began shopping for a developer to convert property near The Mill amphitheater into a 72-room hotel, with a nearby conference center and possible museum dedicated to gospel music legend Thomas Dorsey. The new hospitality-entertainment complex could help focus the city’s anticipated growth into the downtown area.
The city in September began planning out a long-anticipated connecting road that would link the Mirror Lake community to downtown. The city believes that roadway — designed primarily for light vehicle and pedestrian traffic — will lead to a large new development. To make the roadway and development pay for themselves, the city this year also began exploring the idea of creating a Tax Allocation District (TAD), in which new resident’s property taxes would pay for the new infrastructure.
In June, the city opened the Fullerville Trailhead, a new park anchored in the historic mill village nicknamed “Fullerville,” which city officials hope will be the starting point for a trail system that will loop around the city, like Carrollton’s GreenBelt.
Currently, however, the trail exists only as a concept, since some of it will be built along an abandoned Norfolk Southern Railway spur line, and, so far, the railroad has not agreed. But the city has moved forward with the plan anyway, even approving adding a pedestrian underpass for the trail to the plans for the North Loop bypass, which also moved closer to fruition in 2017.
The $11 million, two-mile road is meant to shift heavy truck traffic from the downtown area, which currently must take a circuitous route through the commercial district. At year’s end, however, there was a question as to whether the project will be delayed over last-minute land acquisitions needed for state-mandated roundabouts at Industrial Boulevard and the Dallas Highway. City officials at year’s end were making certain that funding for the road was still on track.
In July, the city began renovation of a former gas station into a new visitor’s center. The former Butterball’s Auto Repair building on West Montgomery Street will house incubating businesses and serve as headquarters for the Regional Visitor Information Center, which was approved last year by the state economic development department.
In October, a new Holiday Inn Express opened on Cooley Way, adding 75 more hotel rooms to the area.