Being a leader means balancing a lot of competing interests; it’s the same whether you’re a mayor or an employer. There are a lot of smart people in our community with a lot of good ideas, but when those ideas clash there will be friction. To be a leader, you must choose a path knowing it will not please everyone. But once you have chosen your path, you must be prepared to follow through, and to defend your choice if need be. The debate about growth in Villa Rica always seems to be framed in absolutes – we either grow or die; you’re either in Mayberry or an urban hellscape. It’s not that simple. Arguments like that are good for Facebook debates, but they don’t reflect reality. I want to talk about the challenges Villa Rica faces and the leadership needed to meet those challenges. I know that many people here are familiar with the issues facing us, but perhaps you haven’t heard them in detail, or from the perspective of someone confronted with these challenges for the first time – just as I was 7 years ago when I was first elected to the city council. When I began serving on the City Council in 2016, the city was dealing with a lot of problems that the national economy had created. We were still adjusting to the growing pains the city had experienced in the 1990s, but the 2008 recession interrupted the revenues we had expected – revenues from fees and permits, not to mention the loss of new construction from our tax digest. We needed that money to pay the $34 million, 30-year bond for our new wastewater treatment plant, and we were facing a massive increase on that bond payment. In the past 12 years, we had only paid $2.2 million on the principal of that loan – and $16 million on the interest. At that rate, it was going to take decades to retire the bond. We needed that money because we were subsidizing our water and sewer enterprise funds with money from our general fund. Water and sewer are business funds; they are supposed to make enough money from fees to pay for all the department’s costs. But these funds couldn’t pay for themselves. That meant we couldn’t pay for water system improvements across the city. We needed that money to do something about our water supply. Right now, we can’t make all the water we need, so we must buy it from somewhere else. The cheap 20-year contract we have with the Carroll County Water Authority is going to expire in 2025 – and then we will see a big jump in what they charge us. We needed that money for repairs on our streets and roads. We needed revenue to do something more about Punkintown Road than patch potholes. We needed to make plans for the North Bypass, and we needed to find some way for Villa Rica Parkway to be built. And there were so many more issues that we needed to address; items that were complex and expensive, such as improving our whole downtown, making it easier to shop there while adding parking, and finding ways to build our downtown business base. And to bring in some of the $167 million in tourism dollars spent in Carroll County alone. Seven years have passed – but look where we are now. Last May, we refinanced the 30-year note on our wastewater plant and we are now working down the principal. Over the past few years, we have gradually raised water rates so that the water and sewer enterprise funds, especially the water fund, is paying for itself. I know water rate hikes are not popular -- but today we aren’t moving money from a healthy general fund to prop up a weak water department, and we’re getting ready for the county water authority’s rate hike. We have set aside SPLOST dollars to prepare for the complete rebuilding of Punkintown Road, a plan that will make it both safer and even more unfriendly to big trucks. We’re working to improve traffic on that side of town through a new downtown connector and a street to improve hospital access. Both projects are possible thanks to west Georgia’s first Tax Allocation District, a tool that will help us solve many problems while helping us manage growth. More about that later. We have secured grants that will finally help us to build the kind of downtown we all envisioned in the Renaissance plan of 2016. We are bringing bigger and better concerts downtown. There are people interested in our people and who want to invest their future with us. This is not because of me or any one person, but it is because I and others who agree with me have stepped forward with a plan. Our problems won’t be solved overnight because they did not develop overnight -- but the plan remains. This plan, which we as a city embarked on in 2017, is for us to grow our way out of our problems. That is what we are doing, and it is a plan that is working. Some may think I am talking about about growth just for the sake of growth. I’m not saying that. Organic growth, just letting it happen is a bad idea, it is frankly what led to the exceptional problems Douglasville is still recovering from today. As with most things in life, there is always an exchange between benefits and negatives. Growth produces many problems and when there is too much growth – uncontrolled growth, unplanned growth – then we quickly reach a point of diminished return. The key to leadership in a city is finding what I call the “sweet spot”; the balancing point where growth produces more positives than negatives. We are at that point now, thanks to the policies and plan we have followed for the past 7 years. It’s easy to say that growth causes problems, especially when you are saying it on Facebook or on the campaign trail. But what would happen if Villa Rica had a “no-growth” policy? How exactly would that work? If you have a no-growth policy for your city, that means having to tell private property owners that they cannot sell their own land to a developer. How do you have that conversation? How do you create zoning restrictions that block growth and expect those ordinances to survive a court challenge? Has that worked in Carroll County lately? If you have a no-growth policy, how do you make up for the revenue you are losing? How do you pay the police department that protects your neighborhood? How do you build parks, attract quality of life activities for the amphitheater, and keep the streets paved? Who cleans the streets, fills the potholes, and takes care of water and sewer? All cities have limited options when it comes to paying for all the things that create a community that’s safe, fun, and affordable to live in. All these options, in one way or another, come down to growth. Growth generates revenue – property taxes, sure, but growth also creates more sales tax revenue, more building fees, more water and sewer taps, and more utility customers so current customers don’t bear the whole cost. If you follow a no-growth policy, then a city must either win the lottery – such as the state dropping a new manufacturing plant in your lap – or you must figure out how to keep your city running. Stopping growth doesn’t stop the costs of running a city. These costs are not in our control; they are linked to the health of the national economy, just as Villa Rica learned 15 years ago. Fuel to run city vehicles never gets cheaper – it only gets more expensive. Materials to repair buildings cost more. Health care costs for employees increase – and if those salaries aren’t competitive, these employees will take all the experience and training we’ve paid for to another city. So, we must find some way to pay these expenses. Without growth, our options are limited, and basically come down to three: • Raise water rates • Cut services – which is what cutting the budget really means • Raise the millage rate If you follow a no-growth strategy, you’d have to raise water rates because those costs continue to rise, and the non-growing customer base pays for it all. If, however, there are more residential and commercial customers, the costs of operating the water department are spread among more people. Everyone can pay an affordable rate and the city can invest more in system upgrades. If you follow a no-growth strategy, you’re facing the same problem when it comes to city services. It’s easy to say, “well, let’s just cut the budget; that’s what we do at home.” Cutting a home budget has the same consequences as cutting a city budget: you do without something. So, what services do we cut? Do we need fewer or more police officers? Do we cut salaries when good, experienced people are leaving us for greener pastures? Do we need to stop repairs and upgrades at the V-Plex, Gold Dust Park? Do we need to stop holding summer concerts? Now we come to the millage rate. That’s the tax rate property owners pay into the general fund. But it’s based on the tax digest, which is determined by the value of property. Healthy growth – and I said healthy growth – raises the tax digest. If new growth in the tax digest increases, we can control the millage rate. And by controlling the millage rate we can keep property taxes low and still pay the fixed costs of operating a city. Not only that, but we can also generate revenue to invest in new projects, like a better parks system or a better downtown. On August 29, I asked the City Council to adopt the second lowest millage rate in over 30 years. This wasn’t an easy decision because our department heads had a lot of projects they felt needed to be funded in this year’s budget. Projects that have been pushed back year after year. And I want to remind everyone that nothing gets into the budget unless everyone -- especially the city council -- decides it’s a necessity. We worked on that budget right up to the deadline for setting the millage. We thought we would have to keep the current millage of 6.25 – but when the numbers from the counties finally came in, we found that we could reduce the millage by adopting a rollback rate of 5.822 by using only the new growth revenue rather than the inflationary growth and still pay for the critical items in the budget. Here is why. Last year, for the first time, Villa Rica’s assessed digest hit the $1 billion – billion with a “b” – mark. And in the next few years, we are on track to add hundreds of millions of market value. The millage, or tax rate, is based on two factors within the digest: inflationary growth – that’s the market-controlled fair market value of property – and new growth, in the form of improvements to existing property or – and this is key – new construction. New homes. New businesses. Everyone in Carroll County saw a tremendous increase in the inflationary value of their property in the last reassessment. To protect taxpayers, cities must consider a rollback millage rate to offset that inflationary increase and instead factor only new growth. That way, cities can still create revenue without burdening the existing taxpayer. In calculating the budget this year – and again, this went right to our deadline – we discovered that for the past two years, new growth in Villa Rica is outpacing the value of reassessed property. New growth is pushing $600,000, while inflationary value of existing property is under $435,000. We expect this trend to continue. If we keep using only the new growth portion of the digest, then we will raise the revenue needed to maintain operating costs, while still investing in new capital projects and manage our debt. In short, the growth will pay for itself AND reduce the tax burden on the Villa Rica property tax payer. A while ago, I mentioned that we as a city committed ourselves to growing ourselves out of the problems that we found ourselves in seven years ago. But what kind of growth? Not the kind of growth that’s going to hurt us. Not the kind of growth that’s going to add to the problems we had before. I’m talking about managed growth; planned growth. When we began this plan, we knew we had to do something about solving our traffic problems and bringing city infrastructure into areas that needed development. The best solution was a tool that really wasn’t available when Douglasville had its growth spurt a few years ago. That solution was a Tax Allocation District, a recent and very innovative city redevelopment tool. Basically, a TAD works by temporarily diverting tax dollars from a development zone to a local government, which then uses those dollars to build the infrastructure the development needs. We created our Eastside TAD in 2019. The most important part of the TAD is this: because we are paying for the infrastructure, we get a say in what kind of development takes place. Douglasville did not have this tool when they were growing so rapidly. We do. Over the past two years, we’ve had intense discussions with the Carroll County school district and the county Board of Commissioners on getting the TAD approved. Both had the same concerns – would Villa Rica grow too much, too fast? Would Villa Rica overburden the school district with new students and have too many new homes or businesses for the county to serve? It was a long road, and too long a story to tell today. But the bottom line is that the TAD is moving forward today with the cooperation of both the schools and the county – and we will all have a say on how the development goes. We will be working to ensure that the new homes will attract primarily seniors and young couples without school-age kids. These will be high-value homes, and they will help us attract retail and commercial development that will add to our tax digest. We need a variety of stores and restaurants in Villa Rica so that we don’t lose sales tax dollars to other towns. We don’t need our residents paying into Fulton County’s SPLOST. These kinds of merchants only locate where there are customers. I understand that there is a large concern about growth in this city, and that it will be an issue in the upcoming mayoral campaign. Are we growing too fast? Are we losing what makes Villa Rica so special. Like most every town in America, Villa Rica has a housing shortage. Only about 7% of our housing inventory is unoccupied. Our seniors especially lack affordable housing. But building new housing creates its own problems. New homes bring young families – which is great for local markets, but their children must be educated, and right now our schools are at or near capacity. More people mean more traffic and more demands on our utilities. These are hard challenges to meet, and I must say they are challenges I did not fully appreciate before I took this office. But the simple solutions – halting growth, trimming the fat from the budget, going backwards, not forward – are not really solutions at all. In fact I would argue these exacerbate the long term problems facing the city. Villa Rica has always been changing. We lost the textile mills, and the railroad doesn’t fuel our economy like it used to. But those have been replaced by the Interstate. If Villa Rica had not pivoted with those economic challenges, we would have withered and died. Change and growth is as much the story of Villa Rica as those gold miners of the 1820s. A favorite historical story about Villa Rica comes from the 1870s, when what was then called the Georgia Pacific Railroad was being built out from Atlanta. Villa Rica was not always located on the railroad; for those who don’t know, the town used to be near Tanner Hospital and the intersection of Highway 61 and Punkintown Road. But when our ancestors heard that a railroad was coming through, they didn’t allow nostalgia to stop them from acting to save Villa Rica. They hitched up their mules to the buildings and physically dragged the town down to where the train was going to run. They knew, as everyone knew in the 1970s when I-20 was finished, that prosperity always follows transportation. It is our location as much as our lifestyle that makes Villa Rica a desirable place to live and to work, and this has always been the case. Three years ago, the national economy was hit by the global pandemic. Yet something new happened; there was a growing acceptance of employees working from home. This phenomenon meant that for the first time, Atlanta-area home builders could consider towns like Villa Rica that are as much as 25 miles outside of their typical market area. At the height of COVID, townhome developers, seemingly out of nowhere, began showing new interest in Villa Rica. Over the following months, apartment developers and home builders also began to call. By August of 2021 City staff were holding discussions about more than 20 residential projects. We had not asked for this, but demand drives the market. The only question was – how could those of us who were leading the city in these modern times plan and use this demand to our advantage? No one running for office has the power to stop traffic on Interstate 20, or to keep metro Atlanta from expanding – or even to keep people from moving to Georgia. The only thing we can do in the face of the inevitable is to plan. We have a plan. There is a way to maximize the benefits of growth and to minimize the negatives. We do it by not being a victim of change; we can take charge and manage it. Other towns have not done this and have reaped the consequences. We do not have to, and we won’t. I was born in Villa Rica. I am raising my sons in Villa Rica. We see a future here, and it’s a future of both nostalgia and pride in what we as citizens have built. We aren’t a sleepy small town anymore; we are at a literal market crossroads, and the changes we’ve seen in our lifetime have made us a great place to raise our families. More than that, we’ve built a town where our children can raise their children. After seven years of working together to create a plan, that plan is working. Through the leadership of the council and city staff, we have moved to the “sweet spot”; that balancing point where planned development builds our tax base, fund our needs, and help maintain everything we all love about Villa Rica. We’re not going to let these challenges defeat us. We’re going to move forward, face the issues, and solve them as they should be solved. With the leadership it deserves, Villa Rica is going to grow into the 21st century.