LaGrange council votes to increase rates to pay for repairs, upgrades

Published 9:18 pm Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The LaGrange City Council voted 5 to 1 Tuesday to increase electric and gas service rates in order to fund repairs and upgrades to the current system.

Council members Jim Arrington, Willie Edmondson, Tom Gore, LeGree McCamey and Mark Mitchell voted in favor, while Council Member Nathan Gaskin voted against. The decision has been discussed on several occasions since it was initially brought before the city council during its retreat in March. This will be the first rate increase for LaGrange utility customers since April 2014.

According to information released during the city’s budget meetings, the electric rate increase will cost residential customers an additional $3.07 per month for the average home or $5.96 per month for a general service customer. The gas rate increase will cost residential customers an average of $2.44 more per month and commercial customers an estimated $123.52 per month. Council members and city officials hope the rate increase will cover a $600,000 increase in Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia fixed costs and allow for operation and maintenance spending in the electric division, while providing for other city expenses.

Council Member Mark Mitchell proposed that the city suspend bonuses for employees for 12 months to show the city’s commitment to fiscal responsibility following the increase.

“In light of the approval of the modification to the electrical rates and gas rates that we are asking citizens to pay more, I feel like it is our obligation as a city that we also make sacrifices,” Mitchell said. “My motion would be that we suspend or freeze the annual PIP bonuses for employees for 12 months until it can be revisited. That could be a cost saving tool. That figures between $70 and $90,000.”

The proposal was voted against in a 2-4 vote, with Gaskin and Mitchell in favor. City employees would have still been eligible for an annual raise of up to 5 percent under the proposal. Gaskin said that he opposed the rate increase due to concerns over whether the city has made the best use of city funds in the past.

“I think there have been some things that have not been done correctly financially in the city, and until those things are corrected, I think everyone needs to be held responsible for actions that have been taken,” Gaskin said. “I just want to make sure the public knows that fiscally responsible elected officials watch everything. It is our duty, and if something is not right, I’m not giving out any passes.”

However, Council Member Willie Edmondson commended city employees and past city councils on their fiscal responsibility.

“I think our city is in very good financial [shape and in] stable condition,” Edmondson said.

“Our finances have been managed quite well. Compared to the cities around us, our utilities are still lower than any of the cities around us. We are lower than Diverse Power and any of the other utility companies. I think it is being managed very well.”

Edmondson is the longest tenured council member on the LaGrange City Council. 

Council Member Jim Arrington proposed that the council review senior discounts and consider raises to those discounts in light of the utility rate increase and the impact that it could have on older citizens on fixed incomes.

“Instead of taking away the bonuses, I would like to entertain the idea of increasing the discount that we give the elderly on their electric rates and their gas rates,” Arrington said. “I would like to look at maybe giving them more of a discount because I think it has been about 10 years, 8 years since we’ve actually looked at that. I know that we are only talking about $3 a month on the utility bill, maybe $5. If they are on a fixed income, we could help them [afford] that $3 to $5 extra on utility rates.”

In the midst of the discussion of wise use of city funds, McCamey raised concerns over the education programs that lost funding during in the 2018-2019 fiscal year budget, which was also approved during the meeting. Several council members previously justified the cut with the proposed utility increase. McCamey cautioned his fellow council members against overly conservative use of the city’s fiscal resources.

“A lot of the money and the revenue that is generated, I think we are getting to the point where we don’t want to release it back into the city to empower our residents,” McCamey said. “I hope we will start thinking in terms of what is generated. There are entities that are helping and empowering people such as literacy [programs] to help the schools, and we are now saying that we don’t want to fund or help fund those entities.”

Programs that requested funding for the 2018-2019 fiscal year that were not approved included First Tee, Certified Literate Community Program, Circles, Success by Six, Fellowship Deliverance, Literacy Volunteers of Troup County, Adaptive Growth & Cultural Advancement, CASA of Troup County, Get Fed Inc. and Calumet Neighborhood. A representative from Get Fed reiterated his request that the city consider funding the program.

Representatives from many of the agencies that lost funding spoke during the council’s June 12 meeting, requesting that the council reconsider its decision.

Mayor Jim Thornton noted that the budget can still be amended in the future, but no changes were formally proposed on Tuesday.