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Posted: Monday, October 1st 2012 at 11:56pm

Gardens department future splits Clarkesville budget vote

By Rob Moore Editor
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Clarkesville City Councilman Brad Lewallen listens as City Manager Barbara Kesler makes her presentation during Monday night's budget public hearing. (Photo/Rob Moore)
CLARKESVILLE – Disagreement blossomed in Clarkesville Monday night over whether to keep the city’s gardens and grounds department separate or to place it under the leadership of Public Services Director Tim Durham, with its current employees cross-training for other public works duties.

In the end, the city council was divided, voting 3-2 to leave gardens and grounds intact as a separate department in 2013.

A budget public hearing at 6 p.m. Monday saw City Manager Barbara Kesler’s presentation of two budget options spilling over 10 minutes into the council’s monthly 6:30 meeting. That was followed by questions and comments from a dozen residents of the city, lasting an additional half hour.

Kesler’s 2013 Budget Proposal 1, approved by the council Monday night, continues to fund gardens and grounds as a separate department at $104,540 in 2013.

Kesler’s 2013 Budget Proposal 2 would have reorganized gardens and grounds to the street department, increasing the streets/grounds maintenance line item from $360,201 to $379,364.

There was standing room only at the meeting, with about 30 people standing in the back of the room, and others in the lobby and an overflow room.

Here’s what members of the public had to say:

Residents Bob Kilgore and Bob Harper stressed that the city’s gardens, planting areas, and parks are what makes Clarkesville unique.

Resident Laura Bell said she had heard the savings generated by the Proposal 2 reorganization would result in enough savings to buy a couple of pickup trucks for the city.

“I read about the savings that would go buy a couple of new pickup trucks, but people don’t come visit Clarkesville to see pickup trucks, and then spend money in the restaurants and spend money with the local merchants,” Bell said.

Bell also raised the issue of Gardens and Grounds Director Charle Statler’s proposed title change to grounds maintenance under Proposal 2, saying, “It indicates greatly that there’s not the same emphasis on the gardens – there are no longer the same resources.”

Bell said Statler already is doing more with less, utilizing community volunteers and community service workers to keep the city beautified.

“I wonder what suffers,” Bell said of Proposal 2. “Is it Mauldin Gardens? Is it Pitts Park? Is it the Greenway? Is it the Square? I just want to know. It seems like the mission of the city is beginning to shift a little bit.”

Resident Rowena Lovell, also representing the Clarkesville Garden Club, encouraged the council to leave Statler in the garden and grounds department as department head.

Linda Averack questioned the roughly $104,000 coming out of gardens and grounds and only the proposed $19,000 going into streets and grounds.

“In the first proposal, the city has two additional employees,” Kesler said. “One is in streets and one is in water distribution.”

Under Proposal 2, Statler and the other employee in her department would be moved into public works rather than filling two open positions there.

“Will she be in charge of it – of the plantings?” Averack asked. “Will it be her budget? Will she be in charge of how it’s spent and how it’s done?”

Kesler replied, “In the second proposal, her input would be there, but no she would not be. Tim would be the department head.”

“I think part of the problem we have here is I don’t think anybody in this room wants to see any of these gardens degenerated in any way,” Averack said. “Charle is a person who has the professional qualifications to make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s point No. 1. And point No. 2 is do you honestly think you’re going to keep her if you do this?”

“I hope so,” Kesler said.

“You’re naďve,” Averack told Kesler. “There’s no way. Cornelia or Cleveland or Clayton will be on the train immediately trying to get her. You need to know that.”

Jeff Samsel, whose 17-year-old daughter Sarah has donated 1,700 hours of volunteer service in the city’s gardens and grounds in the past six years, also urged the city to steer away from Proposal 2.

“The reason those volunteers are there is they see the gardens and they see the way Charle runs the department, and they see the priority that the city has put on making our town beautiful,” Samsel said. “To me, I hear it said that things are not going to change, that things are going to remain beautiful. But it’s impossible for me to see how we can eliminate the garden and grounds department as a city and take the workers from there to fill void positions and share those responsibilities – not as a separate department – and say we’re putting priority on the gardens and saying we’re keeping the gardens and grounds beautiful. I think that’s impossible.”

Samsel said Statler’s leadership has led to many of the beautification efforts that draw people to the city.

Resident Terri Parker said she and her husband lived in small towns in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia before settling in Clarkesville.

“One of the things that set Clarkesville apart and worked into our decision to move here was the value placed on the quality of gardens and grounds, and the way everything looked and was maintained,” she said. “And it was done by a person of Charle’s qualifications. I think that’s something to consider when we think about attracting people to Clarkesville.”

Resident and small business owner Leigh Johnston said the city’s current gardens and grounds program is a link that could draw needed lodging establishments to Clarkesville.

She said Clarkesville not having any lodging establishments is “a miss” for the city.

“One thing we’re not missing is the flowers, the gardens, the parks – anything like that,” Johnston said. “All the beautification – the flower pots – they’re simple things, but right now quite frankly as far as beautification that’s one of the good things we have going.”

Johnston also raised questions about why the StreetScape in town is stalled, but Mayor Terry Greene asked her to limit remarks to the topic of the budget.
Patricia Smith, a 29-year resident of Clarkesville, said, “I have watched the beauty of this city grow.”

Speaking out about Proposal 2, Smith said, “I cannot get over not having somebody to lead it [gardens and grounds], to be over it specifically. I am a retired sales rep, and one of the things I know is if you don’t have a leader, you’re not going to have anybody following. I’m very concerned with the attitude of changing. All I’m hearing is robbing from Peter to give to Paul. I don’t see how that’s going to work, and I just wanted to express my opinion.”

John Bell, Clarkesville resident and business owner, also expressed concern with the changes contained in Proposal 2. He said the charm and vibrancy of Clarkesville make him and his wife feel good about the city.

“It’s largely due to what is visible as a caring touch throughout the city around the businesses,” Bell said. “Even storefronts that are closed are attracting new merchants to come right back in and try it again. That is, I think, largely due to the beauty of not just the people, but also the visible beauty of the town and its gardens and parks system.”

Bell said doing away with the gardens and grounds department could cost the city more in lost business than it saves under Proposal 2.

“Personally, I don’t think that getting rid of a whole department that has achieved this beauty and created it is going to be helpful in this process,” Bell said. “We’ve seen historically the improvements in this town, its beauty, its ability to attract businesses – and it attracted us.”

Bell stressed the quality and array of restaurants in the city, saying, “This place is really hip, and I don’t want to see that endangered at all.”

Teresa Barry of North Georgia Floors rounded out the public hearing.

“A town that aspired to be a Better Hometown and received that designation and has pride in the beauty and the natural wonders around us shouldn’t have public works in place of gardens and grounds!” Barry said. “It doesn’t even compute.”

When it came time to vote on the budget proposals during the regular meeting, Councilman Franklin Brown made the motion to approve Proposal 1, leaving the gardens and grounds department intact with current employees at current compensation. The motion was seconded by Councilman Tommy Burgess.

Brown, Burgess and Councilman Brad Lewallen voted in favor of Proposal 1, while Councilman Casey Ramsey and Councilwoman Tina Evans voted against it.

Following the meeting, Evans left without explaining her no vote.

Ramsey, however, commented on his vote against Proposal 1.

“I felt that given the numbers we were presented by the city manager and looking over those thoroughly we could have changed some efficiencies in the city by moving some personnel internally around,” Ramsey said. “There was no discussion of laying anybody off or reduction of any services of any kind, which I wasn’t for in the beginning.”

Ramsey also discussed what he liked about Proposal 2.

“It allowed for personnel to be used in multiple places, as well as saving us a little over $80,000,” he said. “Anytime that we have savings of that amount, I feel that it’s our responsibility as elected officials to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”

Although he voted against Proposal 1, Ramsey said, “It’ll work and it’ll be fine. It’s just we’ll be $85,000, roughly, different at the end of the year.”

Also during Monday night’s meeting, the council unanimously approved keeping the 2013 millage rate at 6.35 mills, the same rate assessed in the city since 2007.

A separate 2013 capital budget also was approved, but this one unanimously.

The capital budget includes the purchase of two police cars to replace two 2008 Dodge Chargers, which will be rotated out of daily service to spares; purchase of a service truck and one other truck for the public works department; purchase of a new garbage truck; purchase of a track hoe-style excavator and a skid steer for public works; and purchase of computers and software for city hall.

Roughly $250,000 of the purchases will be financed, with the remaining $211,000 being cash. Sources such as Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, outside ad valorem taxes, contribute to capital purchases, city officials explained.

The council also heard from Kesler that city tax bills should go out before the end of the month.
Associated Categories: Local/State News

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