‘Gentlemen, can we focus?’: After heated discussion, LaGrange City Council makes decision on whether to raise utility rates

Published 7:14 pm Tuesday, June 13, 2023

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Following a back-and-forth, “heated” discussion during its work session, the LaGrange City Council held the first reading for its 2023-2024 budget Tuesday during its regular meeting. The amended budget would not require an increase to utility rates and would still provide a salary increase for LaGrange Police Department officers.

Mayor Willie Edmondson said the council is going to use American Rescue Plan Act funding to defer a potential utility rate increase until next year.

“The idea that I have for today is just for this year’s budget, and next year’s budget we will have to go up [on utility rates],” Edmondson said to open the work session. “We will have to go up. There is no if, ands or buts.”

The council had previously discussed a 2% to 3% utility rate increase to offset the costs of raises for LaGrange Police Department officers. The proposed raises would bring the starting salary for a LPD officer to $60,000 a year, up from $51,500 a year.

In previous discussions, City Manager Meg Kelsey recommended raising all police salaries by $8,000 as part of the raises, with the total cost being $961,601.

Instead of utility rate increases, those raises will now be paid by leftover funds from the American Rescue Plan.

“You want to get through this, and I’m cool with that,” Gaskin said to Edmondson on the proposed 2023-2024 budget. “But I want the citizens to know that if you thought the increase was going to be higher this time around, next year is going to be even higher. I would much rather take increments than to take a big hit.”

During Tuesday night’s council meeting, Gaskin actually apologized to the mayor for his actions during the work session, when he was clearly frustrated.

“With that being said, I was handed a budget during the budget process. We negotiated and talked about it in good faith. We agreed. We shook hands. We had pound cake. We talked for how many hours six hours about this budget. We all sacrificed our days from our friends, families, jobs, loved ones, and pets,” Gaskin said. “… Then I came to the work session this morning, and that budget no longer existed in the form that it was received to me.”

Gaskin said he needed his fellow council members to be honorable men and asked them not to be “bullied and intimidated” by other people. He also noted that not one person from the general public commented during the first hearing for the proposed budget.

“That could be a good thing. That could be a bad thing. But whatever the case is the budget Meg Kelsey has provided to me is no longer the budget that exists,” Gaskin said.

Edmondson then clarified that the council didn’t do anything different than it’s done during the last 24 years he’s been serving the city. He said the council made budget amendments after hearing concerns from citizens about the proposed rate increase.

“Those were heated discussions this morning,” Edmondson said, referring to the work session. “As a mayor, council and city manager, we were trying our best to not increase [utility] rates, so we had to do some cutting.”

While the budget was discussed during Tuesday’s meeting, much of the work session was focused on the topic.

During the work session, Councilman Leon Childs initially asked to table the budget discussion because he’d missed a meeting about the utility rate increases and had not had a chance to review the entire budget binder. In response, Edmondson clarified that the utility rate increase was not happening, and Childs apologized.

Gaskin then noted that everyone had made sacrifices, and he named nearly every council member but Childs as part of that point. Childs made it clear he took offense.

“I sacrifice each and every day like you do, like Gore do, like Quay do, like Mark do, like each and every last one of you do, so don’t come in here saying this and that,” Childs said. “I’m tired of this misinformation.”

Childs also made it clear that he has much concern about utility rate increases, even if they are a year away.

“You have people in this room, District 1 and District 2, that live in a 5,000 square foot home, but the people that live in 800 or 900 square foot homes, their light bills are higher than those [in this room]. The people that cannot afford it, they’re going to have to bear the brunt force of this right here,” Childs said.

Childs told Utilities Director Patrick Bowie that he wants to work with him closely over the next year to exhaust all options before any sort of utility rate increase.

Bowie told Childs that the city of LaGrange consistently ranks among the lowest utility providers in Georgia.

For a home with 1,000 kWh usage, LaGrange ranked below state average in cost, per the most recent winter 2023 study from the Public Service Commission. The state average cost was $131.50, with LaGrange at $121.50, or 68th out of 95 measured communities.

The city of West Point has the lowest rates in the state at $95 per 1,000 kWh usage.

Edmondson told council members that he wanted to get through the current budget, then the city can take a hard look at next year’s budget to see what any sort of utility rate increase will look like.

“I’d rather us look at this year and then see exactly next year what it’s going to be. Let’s take one thing at a time,” Edmondson said.

Edmondson worked to move the discussion to four agencies — Tribe Ujima, Save Our Sons, Communities in Schools and Greater Achievement Youth Empowerment Academy — that the city is budgeting to give $12,500 apiece. However, during the work session, the conversation continued to turn back to utilities.

“Gentlemen, can we focus? Can we focus on this budget?” Edmondson asked at one point.

As the work session discussion continued, Gaskin said it’s unrealistic to say the council shouldn’t raise utility rates, pointing to all the nonprofits as an example of local organizations still needing funding, despite the council committing to cutting back on nonprofit funding in recent years.

“Now all of a sudden, people are saying it’s not realistic to have higher utility rates, but everybody else’s cost is going up,” Gaskin said. “Even the agencies are saying ‘hey we need more money. What you gave us last year is not acceptable.’”

The city of LaGrange’s budget will be voted on during the June 20 meeting. That meeting was moved up from June 27 due to a schedule conflict.