Jerkins: Austell struggling, but no layoffs expected
Austell Mayor Joe Jerkins said the county's smallest city is still struggling to recover after the September 2009 floods.
In his deliverance of the annual “State of the City” address Tuesday, Austell Mayor Joe Jerkins said the city had cut approximately $750,000 from its overall budget and will have to cut even more next year of its current $10 million budget.
However, no layoffs are expected, Jerkins said.
The city continues to cut back as it struggles to pay major healthcare premium increases for city employees.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do this next year,” Jerkins told the crowd of about 40 at the luncheon meeting, hosted by the Austell Business Association at the city’s Threadmill Complex. “We’re having to cut our budget. We haven’t given a raise in four or five years.”
City employees do receive Christmas bonuses, but no raises have been given.
After facing insurance rate increase of 22 percent, the city switched insurance carriers for a preferred rate increase of 3.7 percent. The city will cover the $1,000 deductible for individuals and $3,000 deductible for families, but city employees will pay a $5 weekly rate from their paychecks to help pay the deductibles.
The city brings in about $460,000 in property taxes each year, a number that is down significantly from the nearly $660,000 collected prior the 100-Year flood of September 2009. Many residents left the city after the flood, abandoning their homes, and have yet to return. However, the city did collect $60,000 more in property taxes than expected for 2011.
With a millage rate of 3.12, which is discounted for city residents by 3 mills, “our tax base is almost nothing,” Jerkins said.
Cobb discounts the rate for city residents because Austell has its own fire department, Jerkins explained.
Jerkins said the city would be able to save money by letting the county operate its 911 call center, but then the city may not have its fire department’s average response time of 3.8 minutes either for its 876 emergency calls received in 2011.
“If we give up our 911 system, we wouldn’t be able to do that as good,” Jerkins said.
In 2011, the city’s police department answered 4,817 service calls and made 773 miscellaneous arrests. However, the amount collected from fines is down, Jerkins said.
Rebuilding After the Flood
Austell continues to rebuild after the flood of September 2009. In 2011, the city bought 23 homes as part of its Hazardous Mitigation Grant Program. So far, 20 of the 23 homes have been demolished. The purchases, asbestos abatement and demolition of the homes cost the city about $1 million.
In an effort to find the homeowners of abandoned homes, the city hired retired former Superior Court Judge Ken Nix, who specialized in real estate law as a lawyer.
“It’s just been a pretty big mess,” Jerkins said about tracking down homeowners. “It’s not all flooded houses. Some of them just left because the economy is like it is.”
Legion Park was destroyed after the flood, but in May, the park reopened again and a local baseball and softball league leased the fields. The city spent $600,000 –from FEMA, state and city funds– to restore the park and received help from Lowe’s and Georgia Power.
The former Austell Senior Center, which was located on the Legion Park property, was sold to the city by the county for $1.
The county is rebuilding the senior center about a mile away at Clarkdale Park. The senior center should be completed in late March, Jerkins said.
Austell sold about 14 acres of land across the street from Clarkdale Park to the county for $250,000 in 2010, Jerkins said.
Sources of Income and Redevelopment
The city is receiving money from leasing space in its Threadmill Complex, which is 95 percent leased and its Austell Food Mart downtown, which is being leased by Blue Frog foods for $1,500 per month.
Additionally, the city receives more than $4 million in SPLOST funds, which is being used to purchase a $450,000 custom-made fire truck, arriving in August, along with new patrol cars for its police department and upgrades to its 911 center.
The city has received a $510,000 grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission for a streetscape project to revitalize the city’s downtown area. Austell is paying $102,000 to complete the project, which began a few months ago.
After approving an increase in December, Austell receives 8 percent of the revenue generated by its gas system, which has been ranked as one of the best in the nation for five consecutive months.
- The city collected $50,000 through its gas-bill donation program, which allows residents to donate $1, $5, $10 when paying their gas bills each month to help others in the community. The gas system matched that amount, bringing the total to $100,000, which was donated to Austell’s Sweetwater Valley Christian Aid Mission Partnership, the state’s largest food pantry.
- As part of the Austell Area Community Improvement Commission, the city once again donated $300 each to 64 needy families during December using funds from the $50,000 of interest earned on its $5 million settlement from Norfolk Southern. The money was donated directly to the city’s schools and churches, which then dispersed the funds to the families.
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