2023 VILLA RICA STATE OF THE CITY ADDRESS
Delivered by Mayor Gil McDougal
February 7, 2023
As we close out another year, indeed the three-year period that included a worldwide pandemic, I am pleased to report to the Citizens of Villa Rica that the State of our City is strong -- and getting stronger.
Over the past three years, we have made smart, planned growth a priority as developers across the Metro region look westward. We have made substantial improvements in our water and sewer infrastructure. While we cope with the same employment and supply issues common to many small businesses and local governments, we are preparing for the future every day.
By making plans for smart, future growth; by making careful hires and supporting our employees; by taking careful steps in an uncertain economy, we have built a foundation to handle our current growing pains and meet our future challenges.
Let’s take some time to review the major developments of the past year.
Our total cash position remains very healthy, standing at $30.4 million as we begin this new year. This includes all sources of revenue as well as the final half – about $3 million – of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, which is federal money for local governments to offset the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though some believed the 2020 pandemic would negatively impact sales revenues, that was not true locally – and our sales tax revenues continue to be healthy today. In FY22, our share of the combined Carroll County and Douglas County Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) totaled $3.9 million, which was $477,000 more than FY21. Specifically, the Carroll County LOST increased by 13.0% and Douglas County LOST increased by 14.5%. Visitors to our city boosted hotel tax receipts, which grew 22% in FY22.
These revenues have helped the council maintain the same millage rate for the past three years. Looking over the last five years, we have had the lowest millage rates in more than 30 years.
Revenues from Community Development was also impressive in 2022. The City received $1.13 million in business license fees. We generated $395,000 in building permits. And Planning and Zoning received $20;000 in variance and zoning applications.
Our self-funded healthcare fund, which provides custom health care to our employees, also performed well, with $1.2 million in cash reserves. Without this self-funded plan, that surplus would have gone to a large insurance corporation and not to us.
In May 2022, the city refinanced the revenue bond that’s paying for our wastewater treatment plant, saving the city $2.8 million in interest over the life of the bond.
Our city increasingly is becoming well known across the state for our economic progress. Twice last year, Georgia Trend magazine, the leading business journal in the state, profiled the city – along with Douglas and Carroll counties – as regional leaders in business.
Last June, the city was approved for a $1.7 million state Rural Downtown Development Grant that will help us with road improvements. I want to especially thank our council members -- as well as other public officials -- who wrote letters of support for this grant, including state Sen. Mike Dugan, state Rep. J. Collins, Carroll County Commission Chair Michelle Morgan, and Carroll Tomorrow CEO Karen Handel.
Our goal is to put this grant to work downtown as part of an overall plan to improve connectivity with the east and west sides of the city.
In October, the city received a $1.4 million grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission as part of their Livable Cities Initiative (LCI). This grant will pay for engineering designs for making our downtown more livable and easier to navigate for pedestrians and motorists.
Still to come, we got word last year that Villa Rica is among seven cities in the state selected for the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing (GICH) program, which helps towns improve and beautify housing within their communities. For the next three years, the city will have help in developing strategies for neighborhood revitalization, and to seek out affordable developments for elderly, disabled, and moderate-income households.
Although not a grant, just this morning I received a letter from the governor informing me that the City has been approved for a low-interest $3 million GEFA (Georgia Environmental Finance Authority) loan, money which will be used to improve and build on infrastructure.
Much of our progress in 2022 has been hard to see because it has involved underground pipes, or it’s been done in places the public seldom visits.
For example, we refurbished the Conners Road booster pump station; increased the flow capacity at Cowans Lake; and upgraded our way of remotely monitoring our water systems. We renovated the North and West Wastewater plants and replaced or rebuilt 16 lift station pumps. Altogether last year we repaired 133 service leaks, repaired 22 service lines, installed five water main valves, and replaced seven fire hydrants. And we cleared about six miles of sewer easements.
Much of this work was to help make way for new construction we already anticipated.
In May, Arbour Valley Communities broke ground on Cleghorn Street for its Arbours at Villa Rica development. This was the first major housing construction in the city since the pandemic.
In September, Walton Communities opened the first phase of Legacy at Walton Trail, a project that broke ground in 2021. Legacy will eventually replace Old Town Homes, a federal housing project dating back to the time of President Harry Truman. This facility is on Dallas Highway, which is becoming a major
professional and commercial corridor. It’s also where Verida, formerly known as SoutheasTrans, has relocated its headquarters from Atlanta in a terrific new building.
In October, I was proud to speak when the Carroll County school system opened its new wing at Villa Rica Elementary School. It was a great day for those of us who went to school there, because we saw 18 state-of-the-art classrooms with the latest in educational technology open for our students. It was also a continued demonstration of the strong partnership we continue to build with the school system.
I want to thank the Carroll County school board, its chairman Bryant Turner and Vice Chair Sandra Morris for their willingness to consider working with the city on its proposed Eastside TAD, and particularly Superintendent Scott Cowart, who has shown proactive leadership in meeting the needs of a growing school population in northern Carroll County. I also want to recognize Villa Rica’s own school board members Kerry Miller and Dr. Bernice Brooks, who have represented well the interests of all parents of school-age children in and around Villa Rica.
In November, we welcomed FLEX TC at the groundbreaking for their new headquarters on Industrial Drive. This creator of pre-engineered buildings for planned and unplanned construction projects has a national presence, thanks to their relationship with the Masters Golf Tournament, Major League Baseball, and the NFL.
As many of you have noticed, GDOT began clearing the path for the North Loop Bypass late last year. Not only will the bypass remove much of the truck traffic that clogs downtown, this new road will also open a new commercial corridor on the east side of town.
Of course, the biggest construction news for the east side this year is the Fuqua mixed-use development, which is now underway along Mirror Lake Boulevard. This one development holds the promise of changing our city just as the Mirror Lake Community did 20 years ago.
Along with over 400 new places to live, the Fuqua plan will feature a 60,000 square foot grocery store, new retail shops and new restaurants that will improve our quality of life. It will also be the anchor development for the Eastside Connector, a roadway that will provide a long-desired link between downtown and the Mirror Lake and Liberty Road communities.
Tax Allocation District
We all know traffic issues persist across our city, in particular the deterioration of Punkintown Road. Earlier, I mentioned the $1.7 million Rural Downtown Development Grant that, along with Carroll County SPLOST dollars, will help us begin to address this.
To be clear, traffic will continue to be a problem for us for the foreseeable future. But our 2018 traffic study, which was recently updated, has given us a literal roadmap, showing us the traffic patterns and chokepoints in our road system; data that our traffic engineers can put to work.
The Fuqua project promises to bring new tax revenues to our city, which we hope to use to improve Punkintown, Old Stone Road and other roadways – and to build new roads on the east side that will improve traffic flow and emergency access to the area.
We cannot have such improvements without the kind of growth the Fuqua project represents, but we must make sure that this growth is planned and managed. This will help us avoid the kind of growing pains some of our neighbors have experienced.
To that end, we want to put these new developments within a Tax Allocation District. Doing this gives us a way to manage growth by installing new infrastructure paid for by the development, and by leveraging our influence with developers so that new residents do not adversely impact county or city services – or the county schools.
This year, the city continued to demonstrate that it is a fun and vibrant place to live. Our downtown stores and restaurants continued to see more customers and sales since the pandemic.
This past year, Midnight Star, a 1980s band, played at The Mill amphitheater, and cover bands for the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac also took the stage at The Mill. Last year, there was another great West Georgia Jazz Festival and Thomas Dorsey Birthplace Festival. And our July 3rd Fireworks Extravaganza was perhaps the best we had in years, making our town the place for west Georgians to celebrate Independence Day.
Our downtown area will improve this year. A mural is being painted outside 407 Main St., thanks to our city being selected by Go Georgia Arts, a statewide art program.
Due to public demand, our Community Farmer’s Market was revived last year, and I am happy to report that this outdoor market for locally grown meat and produce will return in May for another run through September.
Last year, SPLOST dollars helped our recreation department open a splash pad that parents and guardians of young children seemed to love, giving them a place to have fun during the hot months of spring and summer.
The pandemic significantly affected our recreation department, but we are recovering the momentum. Last year, after a two-year absence, the city launched a new gymnastics program, with camps held during the summer. We had 166 kids participating -- and due to their positive feedback, we’ve expanded the program to include tumbling.
A co-ed sports program called the Little Nugget League was created in the Spring of 2022. The league introduces boys and girls ages 3 and 4 years old to diamond sports. Six teams participated in this first season, and another seven- team league was formed during the 2022 fall season.
Altogether, 1,776 kids participated in youth sports programs offered by the recreation department in activities like football, cheerleading, baseball, softball and basketball. And I should mention that one of the recreation department’s 10 Years Old and Under Football Teams won the League Championship.
In this last budget, I proposed – and the council approved – a master plan study that will involve architects, engineers and other planners mapping the future of the recreation department. This long-needed project will look at our programs and facilities so that we better serve the community.
We had an exceptional season At Pine Mountain Gold Museum. The Ghost Train, celebrating its 10th year, saw 3,575 riders and generated over $43,000 in revenue. Winter Wonderland, one of the best Christmas lights display in the metro area, entertained 3,078 riders who paid $37,000 in tickets. Only bad weather prevented both events from beating previous ridership and sales.
Also, last year, Tanner Health System gifted the City with land along Tolbert Drive that we plan to develop into a passive park, the first for that side of town. Another section of that tract will be developed by Inline Communities.
Our city received statewide attention this year when Chief Michael Mansour was named the 2021-2022 Outstanding Police Chief of the Year. And this was a busy year for our officers.
In 2022, police officers worked 1,241 accidents and issued 2,933 citations. The department also made over 1,568 arrests, including suspects in two separate murder cases.
The City Council funded significant upgrades in police equipment, including protective gear that will help keep officers safe. And the department instituted training on how to use their vehicles for protection during an assault.
Retaining qualified police personnel is an ongoing issue. We have many law agencies competing with us for trained personnel, and we are working to ensure that the officers we train keep their experience and knowledge here.
Last year, we added pay for officers who work the night shift and we issued raises and retention bonuses across the department. We also created a new recruitment video to attract trained officers from across the region, and a website so they can apply with us directly. And we have updated our policy on officers with beards and tattoos.
As always, our officers were also active in the community. In 2022, they gave a presentation on avoiding fraud and theft to those at Conners Road Senior Village. They also hosted a Ladies Self Defense Class, as well as a City Yard Sale at The Mill amphitheater. And there was another successful Citizens Police Academy
During Christmas, our officers provided families, specifically 94 children, with a better holiday, thanks to our annual Shop-with-a-Cop program.
Just last week, our officers rendered life-saving aid to one of our citizens who had gone into medical distress. By performing CPR until EMS arrived on the scene, the actions of these officers made the outcome very favorable.
We began 2022 with a new librarian in place at the Villa Rica Public Library. Dr. Rachel Linn has already brought new learning opportunities to kids and adults alike through many creative programs, and we expect more of the same throughout this year.
Villa Rica welcomed Lena Taylor as our new Human Resources Director, filling a position that had been vacant for too long. Through her leadership, we have been developing ways to make sure our experienced staff remain here in Villa Rica, despite the demand for employees across the region. We have planned a new salary study in this year’s budget to insure we remain competitive with neighboring governments.
To prevent the loss of institutional knowledge through retirements, we have begun a policy of succession planning. When department heads retire, employees are being trained and prepared to step into their shoes.
Challenges for 2023
As we enter 2023, we will continue to address challenges both old and new.
Villa Rica continues to search for new sources of water that will help as our future demands grow.
In 2022, we produced 440 million gallons of drinking water for our citizens – but we bought 262 million from Carroll and Douglas counties to cover our system’s total demand of 760 million gallons.
We need to develop an independent water supply so we can control costs to our utility customers. We are improving our water and sewer infrastructure every day, but we cannot say all our problems are solved until we have an affordable solution to our long-term need for raw water.
As I said earlier, we have seen renewed interest in our city from developers across the Metro region. On the one hand, this is a benefit for our city, but it also is a challenge. We do not want – and will not accept – unmanaged, unplanned growth that hurts our ability to serve all areas of the community equally.
Currently, we have over two dozen development projects in various stages of planning or construction. But it is important to know that we say “no” to many projects, particularly those we find will adversely impact our traffic and the lifestyles of our residents.
The economic impact from the pandemic year affected every business and every government in the United States; Villa Rica is no exception. The same supply chain issues that now impacts our nation’s economy also affects us.
We have had difficulties in obtaining the materials we need for routine maintenance of our systems and buildings, or to make the improvements we’d like to make. We have tried to head off some of these issues by stockpiling materials we know we will need, knowing that if we don’t, those materials will only be more expensive and harder to get.
While some of our challenges can be met quickly, many of them will take years to solve because they took years to develop. But we are confident we have experienced staff that will help us find the solutions.
Villa Rica is a stronger, bigger, more important town than it was only a few years ago. We are excited and proud of how our city has grown, both in size and as an economic leader in our region.
These changes have not been without problems, and I cannot promise that the road ahead will be easy. But I can promise that I and this council will do what we must do to avoid anything that adversely impacts our residents, our children, and our future. We will continue to insist on responsible, planned growth.
With continued, careful planning we can meet the challenges of tomorrow and make each day a great day to live in the City of Gold.