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Clarkston’s future, finances, and funding discussed during city council retreat

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Clarkston’s future, finances, and funding discussed during city council retreat

L to R, City Clerk Tomika Mitchell, GMA Member Services Consultant Michael McPherson, Mayor Beverly Burks, Councilmember Debra Johnson, and Councilmember Susan Hood. Photo by Sara Amis

Clarkston, GA — Clarkston’s mayor, city council, and some members of city staff held their annual retreat at the Georgia Municipal Association’s headquarters in downtown Atlanta Feb. 10.

First on the agenda was a report on the financial health of the city from Davenport & Company. The city is in the early stages of planning projects such as a new municipal center, which may require the city to fund them through borrowing.

Doug Gebhardt of Davenport first offered an overview of the city’s general financial situation. Gebhardt said that interest rates have generally been in decline but the Federal Reserve recently raised rates in order to combat inflation. However, Clarkston’s two previous borrowings were near the bottom of the interest rates.

Clarkston has experienced a $1.2 million increase in revenues over the last five years. Expenditures decreased over the same period by about $500,000. The city’s revenues have generally outpaced budgeted expenses, and actual expenditures have come in under budget. Clarkston’s population over the same time period has increased from 12,839 to 14,735.

Clarkston’s tax digest has increased by about $100 million, from $166 million to $269 million. The city’s full taxable value of $659 million is below the median of $2 billion among area peer cities; between Clarkston, Avondale Estates, Chamblee, Doraville, Lilburn, Snellville, Suwanee, and Stone Mountain, only Stone Mountain has a lower full value. Per capita income, at less than $20,000 per year, is the lowest among peer cities, but median home value at $300,000 is near the middle.

Clarkston’s current reserve fund balance is 41.2% of yearly revenues, above the city policy of 20% but below some peer cities.

Clarkston’s general fund total debt is $3.4 million, while the city’s SPLOST debt is $7.9 million. The legal limit of general fund borrowing for Clarkston would be $25 million, but Gebhardt advised that a healthy and prudent additional amount is more like $12 million excluding SPLOST.

Mayor Beverly Burks asked about the use of tax anticipation notes, frequently used to cover the gap between when budgeted expenses need to be paid and when anticipated taxes are actually received. Finance Director Dan Defnall responded that the amount Clarkston has borrowed in TANs each year has decreased from year to year. Ricardo Cornejo of Davenport said that TANs are commonly used, but should be reduced if possible.

— During a discussion about the city’s charter and organizational structure, GMA facilitator Michael McPherson described the origins of Clarkston as a railroad town. The city was originally chartered in December 1898, and the charter was most recently updated 5 years ago.

When council members were asked what changes they would like to see, Councilmember Laura Hopkins said that she would like to see ranked choice voting so that people don’t have to negotiate in advance about who is going to run for fear of splitting the vote. 

HB 200, currently in  process in the state legislature, would add ranked choice voting for municipalities as an option.

The current system for Clarkston is “first past the post” for at-large seats. Three of the six city council seats are up for election at a time, and the top three vote-getters in a given election win and represent the city as a whole. 

Council member Susan Hood said that in the most recent charter review there was discussion of having districts, but it was discarded as impractical.

“We were having trouble getting people to run,” said Hood.

At-large seats reduce conflict, but districts would make sure that certain neighborhoods or parts of town are not overrepresented. Hopkins said that the current system tends to result in everyone’s third choice getting the most votes. However, McPherson said that judging from council interviews, that’s working.

Clarkston’s current charter allows for a city manager form of government, but is different from most cities in that the city manager is allowed to take part in discussion at city council meetings. In most cases, city managers can offer recommendations in a proposal or answer questions but not debate.

Another aspect of city organization is that the mayor and city council are only allowed to deal with city employees who are under the direction of the city manager, through the city manager.

Councilmember Debra Johnson said, “Amen! Read that again.”

McPherson said that rule prevents elected officials from undermining the city manager. He added that it’s not meant to block communication, but to keep the city manager in the loop. Additionally, direct communication from the mayor or council can be intimidating for staff or engage billable hours from contractors like the city attorney.

The city is not currently fully staffed. The police department is missing an assistant chief and two regular patrol officers, while the public works is down two people out of nine full time employees. GMA facilitator Terrell Jacobs said that this is part of the national labor shortage, and is likely to accelerate as older large population cohorts retire.

McPherson reminded the group that the role of mayor and council is to set policy, while the role of staff is to shape city organization in service of its goals. He added that local governments are closest to the people, but are frequently expected to deliver on high expectations with limited resources. Consequently, relationships with county and state are critical to the city’s ability to deliver services. Georgia is relatively complicated in that regard, but it offers more options in terms of funding and approach.

Jacobs brought up rules of decorum. “Some city councils don’t behave well,” Jacobs said.

“We don’t participate in that,” City Manager Shawanna Qawiy said.

“We’re not gonna come here lying. It happens,” Johnson said, to laughter.

— Becky Taylor, who does Federal advocacy for the GMA, spoke to the mayor, council and staff about the need to allocate the remaining $654,409 from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act grant.

Cities must decide what to do with any remaining funds because the federal government will claw back the money if it isn’t spent on appropriate projects by the 2026 deadline. Clarkston’s total ARPA grant of $4.7 million is below the amount that cities are allowed to use for revenue replacement, which gives a little more flexibility in how the money is spent. ARPA funds cannot be used to fund road repair, but could potentially be used to match Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Law funds for other types of infrastructure projects. In addition, ARPA money could be spent on more of the workforce development and public health projects that Clarkston has already funded.

Taylor advised the city to put a human face on their spending and make sure that the public understands how and why the money is being spent. Taylor said that the Federal government hasn’t done revenue sharing in this way since the 1980s and she believes it should be encouraged. “We know that you know what your communities need better than anyone else,” said Taylor.

— As part of the retreat, the mayor, council and staff also participated in team building, vision and mission statement exercises, and a discussion of organizational culture.

Some time was devoted to discussing ways to make council deliberations more effective and efficient. Suggestions included making sure issues go to committees before coming to the full council, giving more time for council members to review information, and making sure that conflicts are hashed out in work sessions so that regular meetings can be used for decision-making.

— Council members each discussed their primary objectives for the near future. Common themes included commercial and workforce development, affordable and stable housing, infrastructure, and walkable green space. McPherson said that clarifying those common goals will allow GMA to help the city find funding for some of its needs.

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