Prospect considers South Fulton, water, sewer rates raised

by Benita Fuzzell

An increase in water and sewer rates for South Fulton’s city and rural customers was approved during regular commission session Dec. 20, however not before extensive discussion, one action rescinded and a vote retaken by Mayor David Lamb, Commissioners Billy Williams, Tommy Pruett, Beatrice Wilcox and Terry Taylor.

City Manager Jeff Gabbert reported to the officials, following alerting them to the proposed rate increase at a special called meeting last week, that the State Comptroller’s Office, Water and Wastewater Finance Board, had indicated the city’s audit had shown a deficit in both the water and sewer funds, losing money over the past three years.

In order to operate without a continuation of the downward spiral, Gabbert said one factor contributing to the issue was rates were not high enough to support the system.

He proposed an increase of 3.7% for the city and rural water customers, an increase in the sewer base fee, as well as a cost of living increase in 2020, approximately 2.8%, noting the water and wastewater system funds operate independently from the city’s general fund.

Gabbert reminded the officials that if no action was taken to bring the water and wastewater funds into sustainable compliance, and the funds continued to operate “in the red” the State Comptroller’s Office could issue a Commissioner’s Order, which would then open the door for the city’s system to be “flagged” for audit, the city and city officials considered to be found in contempt, mandated rate increases by the state in excess of 30-80% and even actions taken which could include the sale of the city’s water and wastewater systems to a neighboring municipality.

South Fulton resident James Pierce addressed the commission from the audience, stating in years past, he had been part of a delegation which made attempts at the state level to address actions taken by past city administrations, when money was “stolen” from city funds and used for projects which should have not been allowed. He said he did not believe those at the state level took notice of any actions taken in the city of South Fulton.

“I do not think it would be advisable to wave a red flag,” said Gabbert, adding that no business should operate with an ongoing deficit, as the water and wastewater systems had done.

Commissioner Wilcox made the motion to adopt the increase in both water and sewer rates, seconded by Commissioner Williams, with both of them voting in favor of the increase. Commissioners Taylor, Pruitt and Mayor Lamb voted against the motion.

South Fulton resident Kathye Stem, from the audience, questioned the commission’s vote, asking whether the decision was in the best interest of citizens, in taking a chance that the state could take action which could result in much higher rates.

Commissioner Williams echoed the concern, stating on more than one occasion, the commissioners and Mayor had been in meetings over the course of the past few years, in which they were “warned” about the consequences of not enacting yearly increases to assure the water and sewer funds did not continue to operate at a deficit. He noted he would rather the commission take action and begin to correct the problem in the funds, beginning with a 3.7% increase, as opposed to an increase which could be mandated by the state, at a much higher rate.

Mayor Lamb then questioned City Attorney Kirk Moore, as to the process by which a vote could be “retaken”, and Moore advised the action could be reintroduced by the commission and a vote retaken. In that second vote, Mayor Lamb, Commissioners Williams and Wilcox voted yes for the increase, with Commissioners Taylor and Pruett voting no.

Gabbert specified the increases which would take effect, for city water, with a 3.7% increase, from $18.36 to $19.04; rural water, from $22.44 to $23.27; water usage, per 1000 gallons for city customers, from $2.20 to $2.281; rural customers, water usage, 1000 gallons from $3.30 to $3.42. For the 3.7% sewer rate, the base increases from $18.36 to $19.04, sewer usage, $5.87 to $6.087.

The commission approved a resolution which could result in the location of a new commercial operation in the city, with Gabbert reading Resolution 2018-07, a Commercial Proposal with “Palmer” Industries, an unidentified business, to seek out and purchase acreage within the city at a set price per acre, as well as the city to agree to provide certain incentives such as utility hookups, and accept payment in lieu of taxes, similar to what was offered to Tyson, in the annual amount of $13,250 for up to 25 years.

Gabbert said Bedford Dunavant with Union City’s Industrial Board, as well as Lindsey Frilling, had assisted with communications to the prospect, and that four different locations had been shown to the “unidentified” entity, and that if the resolution was acceptable to them, a formal proposal would be prepared for the review of both the city and the business.

“The location will be within the city limits and I believe it will be very beneficial to the citizens,” said Mayor Lamb.

The Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System plan was approved for city employees through commission action, with Commissioner Williams stating he had concerns regarding the fluctuating rate, something that could result in the city not being able to provide raises to employees should the rate increase drastically, however the officials were assured that over 85% of city employees surveyed were made aware that should the TCRS be adopted, the issuance of raises could be impacted.

Gabbert reported in addition to the Community Development Block Grant in the amount of $904,000, a USDA Rural Development “loan” in the amount of $1,101,000 was now ready for offers of interim financing, and a bid date of Jan. 9 at 11 a.m. had been set. He reported to the officials that Simmons Bank and Commercial Bank would be considered, with USDA also an option.

A draft of a utility service disconnection fee was reviewed by the commission with Gabbert asking for any revisions or additions to the draft. With research recently conducted to see if such a policy existed in the city, and none found, city officials directed the city manager to prepare a draft policy, in an effort to enact policy which would provide a consequence to non-payment of utility bills, or payments made using checks written from accounts with non-sufficient funds. The proposed policy, in final form, will include the process by which customers will be notified of the intended disconnection of services, and the process to re-connect services.

Commissioner Taylor requested a revision from using the wording “shall” be shut off, to reflect “will” be cut off, for consistency, and Gabbert was directed to add to the policy, a schedule of fees to be associated with the failure to pay, the use of bad checks, and any fees associated with reconnection or returned checks.

MiKaela Hardy Holland, daughter of Ben Hardy and the late Barbie Hardy, and her husband Brandon Holland addressed the commission asking for their support for the “Brandon Holland Party on the Line”, a two-day country music event to showcase local talent as well as current country music artists. The couple asked for use of the Unity Park stage and a contribution from the city in the amount of $3500 to stage the event.

Brandon Holland indicated he had secured Froggy 103.7 radio station of Murray as a sponsor, and would like to be able to acquire an alcohol permit to sell alcohol during the event’s activities. He requested April 25-27 or May 2-4 as proposed dates to reserve the park. He said he would like to provide the “Party on the Line” to bring people to the Twin Cities and “fill up the Meadows”, with proceeds used to fund scholarships for youth who had lost their parent or guardian.

Mayor Lamb said he had communicated with the Hollands and saw the idea as a “no brainer” as it could provide scholarships for area youth. He also expressed his hopes of being able to continue such an event, first started by the late Barbie Hardy, through Thunderbolt Radio stations.

City Attorney Moore informed the Hollands that the city commission had no authority over the issuance of alcohol licensing for an event, and directed them to contact state officials as to the process to follow.

Commissioner Williams stated that while he was not against the Hollands’ proposal, the proper channels should be followed, which would be to first appear before the city’s Parks and Recreation Board, who in turn reviews a request and then makes a recommendation to the city commission

“I haven’t seen anything the park board has ever done for us,” said Mayor Lamb.

“We have to be consistent. We either need to continue to use and go through the park board for what they were created to do or just do away with it,” said Commissioner Williams.

Commissioner Wilcox made the motion, seconded by Commissioner Williams, to have the Parks and Recreation Board review the request, with the motion passing, and Mayor Lamb casting a no vote.

Also relating to the Parks and Recreation Board, as listed on the meeting’s agenda, was the board’s “Function Approval.”

Commissioner Williams referenced a recent dedication ceremony, to name the Unity Park stage in memory of the late Barbie Hardy, stating “It is not that we were opposed to coming to the dedication, but it was not brought before us to even’s not right.”

“We didn’t even know about it. The only way we knew about the dedication was through the media. We are a commission. This has been two times there has been a dedication ceremony (also referencing the dedication of the city’s heli-pad), and one of them I found out about on Facebook and one I found out about on the radio, It just makes it look like we don’t care,” he added, asking whether the past weekend was the only time the dedication could have been held.

“I didn’t pick it. I asked MiKaela what date,” Mayor Lamb said.

Commissioner Wilcox also questioned money spent on the plaque, taken from city funds, when the commission was not made aware of the purchase.

“The Charter says that I am the spending agent, and the mayor may sign the check,” said City Manager Gabbert.

“Well we still should be made aware of it,” Commissioner Wilcox said.

“It needs to go through the proper channels,” said Commissioner Williams.

During the time designated on the meeting’s agenda, for citizens to participate in the meeting with suggestions, questions and concerns, Kathye Stem, Buddy Grissom, Carol Nolan and Julie Fernandez addressed the commission.

Stem first expressed her concern over the recent announcement of Gabbert’s resignation as city manager, effective in February. She said she believed he had done a good job in the position, and “brought attention to matters at city hall” which needed to be addressed.

“We need someone in that position who is informed and qualified,” she said and asked if there had been any effort to “convince him to stay” adding “what are the chances of finding someone for the pay, knowing the track records for the last two?”

“The man has done everything I have asked him to do. I took stuff to him and he ran with it. If I could talk him out of it, I would. I have heard people say him and the mayor are in cahoots. The man has done an excellent job. Am I perfect? No, I made mistakes. Some Commissioners will bring stuff against me. But I have heard no complaints from citizens....others may have had should have never been put in the paper...,” Mayor Lamb said.

“It was Jeff’s choice to leave. And, not just the mayor, but all of us have seen Jeff do what we have asked him to do. We are an at will state,” Williams said, referring to questions as to whether the commission not extending a contract for Gabbert had played a part in his decision to resign.

South Fulton residents Carol Nolan and Julie Fernandez both expressed concerns over recent actions to curb the acceptance of bad checks, and the addition of a 40 cent processing fee on all checks, now discontinued.

Fernandez said she had been told there is a possibility of no longer accepting checks as payment for utility services and she works out of town which prevents her from being able to come in to the city hall office during business hours to pay. Mayor Lamb responded that the discontinuance of taking checks was only one option to be considered, but at this point checks are still accepted.

Carol Nolan said she had used her debit card over the phone to pay her bill, to avoid the 40 cent check processing fee, and had requested a confirmation number. She said she was told she could not be given a confirmation number over the phone, but one would be mailed to her, three weeks ago, and she had yet to receive one. Gabbert said he would take care of the matter.

Buddy Grissom voiced his complaints about excessive noise generated from the Prairie Farms (former Turner Dairy) garage on Highway 45, following the shut down of the industry’s Fulton location, as a result of added tractor-trailers coming into and out of the location at all hours, sometimes blocking the roadway to maneuver parking. City Manager Gabbert suggested Grissom address the complaint with the City’s Code Board, which will meet next Jan. 3.

In the Mayor’s report, Mayor Lamb announced the TML Legislative Conference will be held March 18-19 in Nashville and the TML conference will be held in June, with commissioners asked to notify the city manager if they are interested in attending. Lamb reminded all city employees of the Christmas luncheon scheduled for Dec. 21, and wished all citizens and city employees Merry Christmas.

In other action, during the 90 minute session, the Commission:

• Approved the sale of property at 316 Holmes St. to Professional Home Wholesaler, LLC

• Heard from Mayor Lamb that a Tennessee Municipal League Discount Pharmacy Card will be available to South Fulton citizens soon, to offer discounts for medicines, with city hall the location for card pickup

• Tabled action on using the South Fulton Police Department impound building as an animal shelter, with Gabbert reporting the facility could no longer be used for that purpose, and that the drug fund had funded the building’s construction for approximately $15,000. He said he had spoken with an individual who had indicated an interest in helping with an animal shelter, however he would have further discussion, as well as explore other options for the shelter

• Re-affirmed the current policy in place, as to authorization for the release of any city-affiliated information to the media, as well as interviews by media, which states the City Manager is to issue such releases and approve media contacts

• Approved a policy which states the city will not pay for dues affiliated with private or civic organizations for city officials, incurred by city employees and/or officials

• Approved the construction and use of a gravel area at the city dump location to be used by the South Fulton Fire Department for the practice of vehicle fire training and extrication