Proposed LaGrange budget cuts agency funding by half, could lead to total cut by 2024

Published 11:30 pm Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Editor’s Note: this article has been updated to correct several inaccuracies. 

It’s a proposition several council members have discussed since at least 2016, but one that may finally come into fruition at the finalization of the city of LaGrange’s FY 2022 – 2023 budget this June.

At the city council’s preliminary review of the budget Tuesday, it brought forth a long-anticipated discussion of “weaning” area agencies off city funds – ultimately saving the city hundreds of thousands in funds and disallowing a need to incur a proposed increase in gas taxes for city taxpayers. This proposed increase for all city customers was expected to be a 6.1% increase per residential customer or 4.5% for commercial customers. Ultimately, an estimated 7,500 gas customers could be paying as much as $67 dollars more on their gas bills per year.

“The commodity cost has increased so dramatically that it will feel to residential customers like 20.9% increase [and] 23% increase to commercial customers,” LaGrange City Manager Meg Kelsey said. “Customers area are already feeling the price of gas.”

The alternative to this increase lay in not fully funding the various charity or organization agencies in LaGrange. According to city documents, 21 area agencies – including Harmony House, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, LaGrange Art Museum and DASH, just to name a few – received a combined $430,843 in funding in the FY 2021 – 2022 budget. With rising operational costs across the board, agencies asked for a combined total of $497,860 in the FY 2022 – 2023 budget – an increase of over $67,000.

Some agencies like Red Cross requested as little as $12,660 from the city, while others like DASH requested as much as $100,000. Communities of Tomorrow had the highest request of $90,000, a 152% increase from its $15,900 request for funding in FY 2021 – 2022. DASH had the second-highest request. One agency, Women of the Church, receives free utilities from the city but made no new request for funding from the city.

The consistency among council members was to cut the asking funds of agencies by half for the upcoming FY 2023 budget year but also to further eliminate funding them by the next FY 2024 budget year. The council said they would not fund any new agencies but would continue to fund the ex-Boys and Girls Club, which was rebranded the West Georgia Star Youth Program after the organization lost its charter status earlier this year, through the current budget year. 

Councilmember Jim Arrington ultimately spurred the proposal, suggesting the council cut each agency’s funding by 50%, and then in half again the following year until they are completely weaned off of city funding support. With the reduction, the city would only pay $189,030 – a savings off of the budget of $307,000.

“I don’t want to just pull the rug out from under them[but] every year since I’ve been on the council we’ve talked about agencies being self-sufficient,” Arrington said as his reason for the decrease suggestion.

Councilmembers Mark Mitchell and Nathan Gaskin echoed Arrington’s suggestion, voicing concerns how some organizations were managing the city-granted funds and how funding agencies were affecting rates for taxpayers.

“When you’re talking about going up on [residents] rates vs. giving out money, it just doesn’t make sense,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell voiced concern about using city funds for certain agencies. Communities of Tomorrow, he noted use cashiers’ checks while other agencies use traditional bank accounts. He said he would agree to continue to partially fund the organization if they set up a more traditional bank account.

Teara Harris, founder and executive director of Communities of Tomorrow, said Friday, that Communities of Tomorrow previously used cashier checks as a method of payment for payroll purposes, but has always operated using a traditional banking account.

Councilmembers voiced hesitancy on cutting certain agencies such as West Georgia Star due to their work with rebranding the Boys and Girls Club, and DASH. Councilmembers expressed consistency to cut DASH from the general fund as an agency but reallocate community development funding. DASH is planning a duplex housing and a singular housing development at the intersection of Cherry Street and Peachtree Street. The property, which is owned by the Callaway Foundation, would provide rental income to DASH.

“[DASH] is looking for ways to be self-sufficient and this is one of those ways,” Kelsey said. “They asked, if the council decides not to continue with the SOUL program, would council award them with the remaining [$390,000]  in the [community development] fund to build these units.”

Arrington also voiced hesitancy with not funding Harmony House, a domestic violence shelter in LaGrange, due to the constant utilization of it by the LaGrange Police Department. With the half-cut, the city would still be funding the organization $12,500 in FY – 2023.

“If we utilize them enough, we don’t need to put that burden on [LPD] and then cut [Harmony House’s] budget,” he said.

An alternative presented to further avoid the gas rate increase included cutting out the city’s curbside recycling services, which currently cost the city $158,000 a year. Residents would still have the option to take their recyclables to the combined city and county recycling center at 530 S. Davis Road. The recycling bins would be repurposed as traditional trash bins. No vote was taken, but per discussion, the council agreed to stop the curbside service beginning July 1. Customers will receive notice beforehand.

Two public meetings regarding the budget will be held June 14 and June 28. The budget will be finalized following the second public hearing.