ALBANY, Ga. — Members of the area’s state legislative delegation got an earful and then some Tuesday during all-day meetings with the Dougherty County and Albany City commissions, the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, the presidents of Darton State and Albany Technical colleges and representatives of the local judicial delegation.
The theme of the meeting with each group varied according to their most pressing needs, but the bottom line was about the bottom line — money and how to get more of it.
“Each group has come to us with specific challenges, and most of them center around funding for those challenges,” State Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson, said. “Part of the problem is that a lot of people haven’t come to accept the ‘new normal,’ which is less money.”
While Dougherty County Commissioners were concerned with jail reimbursements, library funding and area transportation issues; their counterparts on the Albany City Commission spent their session talking about tax-related issues such as tax-exempt status of property located within the city limits, confusion generated by the state’s Local-Option Sales Tax law and how tax money would be spent on funding charter schools.
The chamber delegation, which had already discussed that body’s legislative agenda at a breakfast last week, spent much of its session discussing charter schools and funding for such cash-strapped local attractions as the Flint RiverQuarium.
“What you’ve got now is kingdom building within each organization,” Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, said. “You’ve got people fighting over one penny of a hotel tax so they can all watch each other starve to death.”
Albany City Manager James Taylor told the delegation, which also included Reps. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany, Carol Fullerton, D-Albany, and Gerald Greene, R-Cuthbert, that the city’s financial woes are exacerbated by the tax-exempt status of 24.7 percent of the property within the city limits. Taylor noted that “at least 16 percent” of that property is owned by one entity, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital.
“And the estimates we have on that property is probably low because they have no motivation to re-evaluate,” Taylor said. Told by Dukes that “we have given you the means to deal with that issue,” Taylor said all tax issues are handled by the county-appointed tax director.
“You talk about wrestling a 150-ton gorilla,” Taylor said.
When Dukes was told that the county tax director (Denver Hooten) was appointed rather than elected (the only one in the state who is), he said, “We can drop a bill tomorrow making that an elected position.”
Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard noted that the concern over growing tax-exempt properties is not Albany’s alone.
“It’s a statewide issue,” she said.
Fullerton praised Albany Tech President Anthony Parker and Albany State University President Everette Freeman for their “informal pact” through which they have a “gentleman’s agreement” to request funding for only the most pressing budget item.
“They set an example that the rest of the state should follow,” Fullerton said.
Parker told officials that Albany Tech operates with the smallest budget per FTE (student count) among the institutions in the state’s technical college system, noting that his school’s average per FTE is $1,664.49, compared to the state average of “right under $3,000.” He also said other technical colleges in the region, none of which matched Albany Tech’s graduation or job placement rates, average around $3,400 per FTE.
When county officials asked for $2 million in funding to finance a new roof (estimated to cost $780,000) at the county’s Northwest Library branch, Sims said of the purchase of the building five years ago, “That’s a bad purchase.”
Dukes, meanwhile, used the request to offer his personal concerns about the closure of two “underused” library branches in the county.
“Someone who’s running that Library Board has their priorities out of order,” Dukes said. “Instead of some grandiose design, the people of those neighborhoods (where the libraries were closed) need access. You want $780,000 for a new roof, and I can’t get a library open in my neighborhood.”
Greene, the new kid on the block among the local delegation after redistricting brought a portion of Northwest Dougherty County into his new district (151), said the meetings have been beneficial for him in particular.
“I’m kind of the catch-up guy,” he said. “I’m learning a great deal in these meetings about the issues that concern this region. What I’d like to hear, though, is more from the local representatives and less from us.”
The 2013 Legislative session is set to run Jan. 14 through April 18.