Albany City Commission approves budget, parking ordinance

City government signs off on state lobbyist, funds for downtown attractions

ALBANY — It was a City Commission meeting where most of the fireworks came during a pre-briefing beforehand, fireworks that led to Thursday’s resignation by interim Water, Gas & Light Commission General Manager Tom Berry, but city leaders did manage Wednesday to approve a Fiscal Year 2015 budget and finally agree on an ordinance that will allow neighborhoods to regulate automobile parking.

Discussion of a charter change that would allow the city’s Water, Gas & Light Commission board to OK rights-of-way acquisitions up to $250,000 and that would make the city manager the general manager of the utility authority devolved into an angry discussion that Berry said Thursday led directly to his decision to resign from his WG&L position.

“You’ve got commissioners who seem to think we proposed a rate increase because Georgia Power plans to raise their rates,” Berry said. “That’s ridiculous and it shows clearly that this City Commission does not understand the issues it’s voting on.”

The board held a “first reading” of the charter change proposal and will officially vote on the matter after a second reading at its July 22 meeting.

The commission signed off on a $132 million budget with a 5-2 vote. Ward I Commissioner Jon Howard and Ward II’s Bobby Coleman voted against the spending plan.

“I think, overall, it’s a good budget,” Howard said. “But there has got to be a better way to balance a budget than by taking more money from poor people on fixed incomes. That’s why, for the second time in 20 years, I will vote against this budget.”

The money crunch that has plagued the city in recent years did not stop the board from bucking City Manager James Taylor’s recommendation that the city not allocate funding for two downtown attractions: the Flint RiverQuarium and the Albany Civil Rights Institute. The board voted 4-3 to approve $200,000 in funding for the former and $100,000 for the latter.

When Ward III Commissioner B.J. Fletcher said she’d talked with Civil Rights Institute Director Frank Wilson earlier that day and that Wilson had said he did not ask for more money, Ward VI Commissioner Tommie Postell said, “I made that request on behalf of two board members who were here last week. And I will see Mr. Wilson about this.”

The commission also voted to allow clearly defined neighborhoods to outlaw parking in front yards of improved single-family residences with a 60 percent vote by property owners in the neighborhoods. Asked by Postell to explain the ordinance, Planning Director Paul Forgey said, “At this point, anyone can park anywhere they want to in the city. This ordinance allows neighborhoods to restrict parking if 60 percent of them petition to do so.”

Fletcher asked if there was a real need for the city to maintain the services of state lobbyist Rufus Montgomery at $60,000 a year, and Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff, City Manager James Taylor and Assistant City Manager Wes Smith all said Montgomery’s influence more than pays for the money spent.

“I asked the same question you’re asking last year, and I thoroughly vetted (Montgomery),” Langstaff said. “After that, I thought it was a good idea, and I still do.”

The board voted unanimously to retain Montgomery through his Cason Group LLC, but not before a brief exchange between Postell and Smith. Called to the front of the room by Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta, who jokingly asked, “What are you waiting for?” Smith said, “I’m waiting for instructions. I work for Mr. Taylor.”

Postell said, “You work for this City Commission,” and Smith replied, “No, I work for Mr. Taylor.” Taylor also said, “Mr. Smith works for me” before Mayor Dorothy Hubbard banged her gavel to restore order. Postell later said, “No disrespect to the city manager, but Mr. Smith is paid by the city commission.” An exasperated Hubbard said, “You always have to get the last word, don’t you?”

The commission also formally signed off on service agreements with the county to provide procurement, fire, recreation and Code Enforcement services.