F’ville fire vote may cost city $900,000 in road funds
Fayette declines to help pay for Hwy.92/85 traffic realignment cost increases after 3-to-2 anti-consolidation vote
The recent 3-to-2 Fayetteville City Council vote that snuffed out Fayette County’s push to consolidate city and county fire departments also may have cost the city nearly $900,000 in county help to construct a massive traffic realignment, including three roundabouts, at the busy Ga. highways 85/92 and Hood Avenue intersection.
What’s the connection and why the pull-back? The county had planned to implement a 3-mill fire tax to be paid by Fayetteville property taxpayers, a move the county deemed critical to replace fire taxes it lost on land annexed by the city in the Pinewood Atlanta Studios development deal.
The linkage between the roundabout and the fire departments issue is an equation: No consolidation equals no replacement fire taxes. And that equals no reason for the county to allocate $900,000 more in county funds to a city project when the county isn’t getting anything in return.
The cost of the Ga. Highway 92/Hood Avenue realignment project in Fayetteville has gone up while right-of-way acquisition negotiations have dragged out over the past couple of years. Recent open records requests by The Citizen attempted to get a handle on when the conversation to have Fayette County provide additional funds began, the current status of the request and who took part in the conversations.
The documentation did provide some of those answers while shedding light on something else — the rationale on preventing city management and finance staff from sitting in on the initial discussions that centered largely on the fire department consolidation, but which also included the transportation project.
The issue of needing additional funds for the Hwy. 92/Hood Avenue project appeared to begin when Mayor Greg Clifton in a Jan. 20 letter to Fayette County Commission Chairman Steve Brown said costs in a number of areas had increased and asked the County Commission to consider allocating an additional $952,780 from the 2003 (special purpose local option sales tax) SPLOST revenues toward the project.
In 2010, the county in an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) committed to an amount not to exceed $7.774 million.
For its part in the agreement, Fayetteville was responsible to pay for additional costs acquiring right-of-way, buying construction materials and paying for labor exceeding that amount. A projected cost estimate in March 2012 showed the county’s SPLOST share at $7.634 million and the city’s share at $616,723.
By March 2014, the negotiations over land acquisition continued and, along the way, various costs had risen. The current budget shows an additional $1 million in costs, with the city share at $138,500 and the county’s requested share at $882,531.
County Administrator Steve Rapson earlier this month provided a logical explanation as to why the county might not provide the additional funds needed for the Hwy. 92/Hood Avenue project, citing setting a precedent. Rapson noted that Fayette’s other municipalities might also seek additional funds if the county provides the nearly $900,000 to Fayetteville.
Information provided by the county pertaining to the 2003 SPLOST shows seven eligible projects outstanding in Peachtree City, though some of those have been dropped.
Tyrone has one project which the Town Council is not supporting and Fayetteville has 12 projects, including those which are a part of the Hwy. 92/Hood Avenue project. There are additional projects, such as the East Fayetteville Bypass, which are included in the project list in the unincorporated areas.
The issue regarding project funding surfaced in part during the City Council retreat on Feb. 25 and at subsequent meetings. The need for additional funding became linked to the much-publicized fire department consolidation.
The idea was that the city’s nearly $1 million in impact fee revenues, which would go to the county if consolidation occurred, could be swapped for an equal amount of SPLOST dollars so the city could go ahead with the Hwy. 92/Hood Avenue project.
It was at the Fayetteville City Council retreat in late February that the county made a bid for the city’s fire department. The proposal followed one two years earlier that was turned down by the council.
Though a separate issue, the idea of the county allocating additional SPLOST funds for the Hwy. 92/Hood Avenue project surfaced during the fire consolidation issue that was not decided until the council turned down the proposal in late April on a 3-2 vote.
Wanting additional information on how the conversation about the Hwy. 92/Hood Avenue project unfolded, The Citizen made requests for that information to the city and county. As expected, the mention of the transportation project was part of the much larger consolidation issue.
The documentation, and subsequent questions posed to council members, showed that the initial discussions were held in meetings with Rapson, Brown, Fire Chief David Scarbrough and one or two council members in individual meetings. Most on the council said the meetings occurred two or more weeks after the Feb. 25 retreat. Council members agreed that the Hwy. 92/Hood Avenue project was not discussed at the private meetings.
It should be noted that a meeting of one or two council members and other local elected officials and staff is not uncommon. What was of note, however, was some of the information contained in the documentation that revealed that city finance staff and City Manager Joe Morton had not been included in the meetings between council members, Brown and the county’s chief administrator.
That raises questions since it is the job of the city manager and finance staff to know all the details relating to anything involving city projects. Morton, finance director Lynn Robinson and assistant finance director Ellen Walls have approximately 60 years of combined of experience with city finances in their respective fields.
Morton in a March 28 email to council members said, “Gentlemen, I was informed this week by Steve Rapson that he and Chairman Brown would be meeting with our mayor and council members individually over the next few days to discuss the fire consolidation. I appreciate Steve notifying me about these meetings as I was not aware of these meetings. I asked to be included in these meetings so that I would have some knowledge of what was being presented and discussed, but my request was denied. I was informed that staff would be updated at a later time.
”At this point I don’t know who has met with the county and what information has been shared,” Morton wrote. “I do know that city staff is now beginning to get questions about the fire consolidation from council members and we simply are not in any position to answer questions from you, not having any knowledge of what information has been shared.
“I would respectfully request that you hold your questions until after all council members have met with the county and staff has been presented the information as well. We can then address all questions in a systematic and comprehensive manner. I would also request that all questions be addressed through my office so that I can ensure the proper response,” Morton wrote.
Asked about the denial of his request, Morton on May 6 said he initially made the request to the county but was denied, being told that Brown and Clifton wanted only the city’s elected officials at the meetings. Morton said he then reached out to mayor pro-tem Paul Oddo, who indicated that staff would be included at a later date.
Oddo later voted in favor of consolidating the two departments. Clifton had no vote, but was vocally in favor of consolidation.
Clifton on May 12 was asked why Morton and city finance staff had been excluded from the initial meetings.
“It was more of a situation of putting (them) after us instead of before us. And (Morton) may have been a little miffed at that,” Clifton said.
Asked why not include Morton or the finance staff in one of the meetings with council members, Clifton said, “I didn’t think of it at the time, but it sounds like a pretty good question.”
Pertaining to the Hwy. 92/Hood Avenue project, Morton in an April 3 email to council members, city finance staff and Fire Chief Alan Jones said, “City and county staff met today to review the fire and water service consolidation proposals. Mayor Clifton was also in attendance at this meeting.”
Morton then provided an overview of the consolidation discussion and a timeline for public meetings on the issue. Included in the review was the statement, “Hood/Hwy. 92 additional funding request and Fire Impact Fee funds transfer to county are two separate issues and should not be tied together with this consolidation plan.”
Morton in the email also noted a number of considerations for consolidating the city’s water service with the county which would require several months to accomplish.
Prior to the April 23 vote by the council not to consolidate fire services, Brown in an April 19 email to Oddo addressed the consolidation issues that Oddo stated in an April 18 email to Brown. One of Brown’s topics dealt with the outcome of failing to consolidate fire services and “the inability to do the Hood Avenue million-to-million swap.”
Brown later in that email had comments about former council members who had attended the joint city/county fire consolidation meeting held on April 9 and were very outspoken in their opposition to consolidation. Brown in the email also had comments pertaining to the city’s staffing and financial status.
“Emotions aside, (consolidation) is both a strategic and financial win for the citizens of Fayetteville. Plus, we all know that consolidation is the most efficient and cost-effective way to deliver fire services to our constituents. Your predecessors, the ones who would like to see you fail and hope that you will give in to their pressure, know it is the most efficient and cost-effective delivery method or they would not have agreed with combined EMS and E-911, right? The (former Mayor Ken) Steele, (former Councilman Larry) Dell, (former Councilman Walt) White and (former Councilman Al) Hovey-King philosophy is it’s only wrong when the current City Council does it. Letting hypocrites influence your governing strategy is a really bad idea. In order for the county to succeed, we need a fully-functioning city of Fayetteville. Right now, from a staffing and financial perspective, the city is running on three tires and a quarter of a tank of gas This is your moment to take control and bring it back,” Brown said.
As for the Hwy. 92/Hood Avenue project, there are a few more small parcels to secure prior to any construction being possible. The city, too, will have to evaluate the potential of either scaling back the project or finding additional revenue sources to move it forward.