ALBANY, Ga. -- Asked about the Albany City Commission's expressed desire to have more of a say on operations of the city's Water, Gas & Light Commission, city and WG&L officials have offered virtually the same reply: We're waiting for the report from the Carl Vinson Institute.
The wait is now over.
Carl Vinson Institute of Government Senior Public Service Associate John O'Looney offered an overview of the study by the University of Georgia-based research institute at Tuesday's commission meeting, clearing the way for action by the city.
"It's premature to guess what action the city might take now," City Manager James Taylor, who last week was officially named interim general manager of the utility as well, said after Tuesday's commission work session. "I think the next step is for the commission to consider the study and then decide what they want to do with it."
Vinson Institute representatives met with city and WG&L officials and also talked with comparable cities that are part of the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia to determine what strengths and weaknesses there might be in independent or fully consolidated utility models to give Albany officials a clearer understanding of what issues might await as they consider more control of WG&L.
"I don't think they told us anything we didn't kind of know already," Taylor said. "They did point out challenges that won't come any faster or go away with any type of merger (between the city and WG&L).
"It gives the commission something to think about as we move forward. Ultimately, whatever decision is made will come from them."
O'Looney discussed such topics as the transfer of funds from WG&L to the city, which he said was low when compared to other cities in Georgia, consolidation of such duplicated services as HR, IT and finance, the impact politics might play on WG&L policies with more control by elected officials and salary issues that would immediately arise with complete consolidation of the two entities.
"One of the things this study proves is something that's always been clear: Management is all," O'Looney said. "Without the right management in place, you can consolidate or remain independent. It won't matter."
Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff suggested taking "baby steps" as soon as possible as a means of easing into more of a merger between the two entities. By having the city manager more involved in WG&L business, Langstaff suggested, the commission will have a clearer understanding of issues that arise.
"One of the things I want to know is how much WG&L invested in installing fiber (optics) and why they now want to sell it," Langstaff said. "It might be an aggravation to them, but we need to look at the long-term impact. Because, as the courts have ruled, ultimate responsibility falls on the city."
Earlier in Tuesday's meeting, Assistant City Manager Wes Smith sought direction on a request by Ward II Commissioner Ivey Hines to research development of a citywide strategic plan. Smith noted that such a plan would require funding and a considerable investment of time.
"I feel we need to move forward with this issue," Hines said. "The total community needs to be involved in the process, and we need to deal with all the issues that impact our city: poverty, illiteracy, economic distress. We need to do what we can to stop this brain drain with our community's children."
Langstaff said he wasn't sure if, with Taylor asking department heads to make 10 percent across-the-board cuts to their budgets, now was the best time to finance a costly strategic plan.
"Regardless of the economic realities, we need a plan in place," Hines said.
Chehaw Park General Manager Doug Porter told the commission of park officials' plan to increase general admission fees to $3 for adults and $2 for children, and commissioners gave non-binding approval to a request from Downtown Manager Aaron Blair for $302,082.03 in funding for streetlights in the historic Old Northside neighborhood currently being developed.
The money, which would be used to purchase and install 29 pedestrian lights and 18 street lights along Tift and Residence avenues, would come from unused Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax II funds.
"There are lights out all over the city," Langstaff said. "I'd hate to see new lights installed before we get the ones we already have working. There's not an endless pot of money for that."
Taylor said citizens could help WG&L officials repair lights that are not on by calling 311 or using a special smartphone app to report the outages.
The commission also tentatively approved Hatcher Tractor Co. of Albany's $136,500 bid to supply crushed asphalt that will by applied in several alleys throughout the city. Public Works Director Phil Roberson said the cost of the asphalt is $8 to $10 a foot, as opposed to $140 a foot for paving alleys.