COVINGTON - The city of Covington is weathering the financial storm that has crippled other governments, Mayor Kim Carter reported at her State of the City address at Turner Lake Complex Thursday night.
"We had to embrace the present. We couldn't stick our heads in the sand and hope the economic woes went away," Carter said.
When Carter took office in 2008, she said one of her goals was to run city government more like a business. To that end, "We've tightened our belts," and the city budget is about $20 million less than it was three years ago. There are 35 fewer employees, accomplished through attrition or early retirement -- there have been no layoffs or furloughs, she said.
The city has not had a tax increase since 2004 and has not adopted the rollback millage rate since 2007, despite a 17 percent decline in the tax digest in the last three years. Another 12 to 15 percent decrease is projected for this year. The city will collect less than $5 million in property taxes. By comparison, it costs $11 million to run the public safety department alone, Carter said.
The owner of a $150,000 home in the city pays about $490 in property taxes per year, Carter said. "You're getting a very good return on your investment," including service by award-winning and accredited police, fire, 911 and public works departments, she said.
Carter also reported that summertime utility rates have dropped due to purchase of additional base power, moving Covington from second highest to middle of the pack in terms of rates and resulting in an average yearly savings of $141 per household. The city is also 12th lowest out of 92 providers for winter utility rates, according to the Georgia Public Service Commission, she reported.
Electric rates have not increased since 2000. Gas rates increased in 2008 because, "We were barely breaking even," she said. The city has made a $163 million long-term investment in two new nuclear reactor units at Plant Vogtle to provide power needs in the future.
The city has also taken over control of the Covington Municipal Airport, formed an airport authority, extended the runway and invested about $6.6 million to purchase 261 aces near the airport for future economic development. In the coming years, the city will continue to invest in airport development, building a new entry road for easier access and applying for grants to build a new terminal, she said.
Another of Carter's goals when she was elected was to make city government more transparent. She said that has been accomplished by adding two public comments sections to city council meetings, one at the beginning and one at the end, where the public can speak on any item not on the agenda. Citizens can also sign up to speak on any agenda topics. Council meetings and other public meetings are also taped and aired on the city's local access channel. Citizens are also able to e-mail questions and concerns to the city via its Web site and the city may soon have its own Facebook page.
Finally, Carter said progress has also been made in addressing poverty in the city through the city's housing initiative. The Urban Redevelopment Plan entitles private developers to apply for tax credits to build in high poverty areas. One developer has already been successful in receiving tax credits for two projects: a senior high rise in Harristown and 32 single family homes in Walker's Bend. The city's Neighborhood Stabilization Program, also in Walker's Bend, is providing housing for low-income families as well as financial training.
"If we didn't provide training we'd just set people up for failure. We feel like our housing initiative has been a big step in giving a helping hand to those in need," she said.
City code enforcement has cracked down on abandoned and dilapidated structures and in the coming months 13 will be demolished with property owners' permission.
Carter said the coming year will be "challenging but not impossible."
The city is on track to finish a strategic plan that has been three years in the making. About $1.2 million in resurfacing projects are planned for city roads. The council has committed to investigating a public transportation system. The city has 25 miles of aging transite pipe that must be replaced, at a cost of $18 million. The city will continue to search for opportunities to invest in land with the county to attract industry to the area, she said.
And Carter said a new city hall is needed, as city personnel have outgrown the current facility that was originally built as an office for Snapping Shoals. Carter said the existing city hall is "cramped, there's no natural light in that building" and it is "not conducive to conducting day to day business as a city."
"I hope you have found Covington is not all gloom and doom like you read in the national newspapers and see on the national news every night," Carter said, giving a special thank you to city staff.
"It takes each and every one of us to continue to improve and grow our city and strive for it to be the best it can be," she said.