By Tia Lynn Ivey
The Madison Mayor and City Council held their annual retreat at the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission (NEGRC) in Athens last Monday to discuss several matters of concern, including economic development, Service Delivery Strategy negotiations, and the possible return of Planned Residential Developments (PRDs) in the Historic District.
The Mayor and Council agreed Monday that the ongoing Service Delivery Strategy negotiations with the Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) must be resolved soon, before the deadline this summer. The Service Delivery Strategy pertains to the services provided by the county to the city, which city residents pay for through taxes. Back in May of 2016, requesting the county renegotiate a new Service Delivery Strategy (SDS) with the city, on account of the city’s claim that city residents pay too much in taxes while not receiving a fair-share of county services. A compromise as yet to be agreed upon, even after meetings and talks between city and county leadership throughout last year. If an agreement cannot be reached soon, according to City Attorney Joe Reitman, the city must decide whether or not to initiate statutory mediation. If statutory mediation fails, the city’s only option to achieve renegotiation will be litigation. However, during Monday’s retreat, the council seemed hopeful to come to some sort of agreement with the county now that there are two new commissioners on the board, Ben Riden and Philip Von Hanstein, along with a new incoming County Manager, Adam Mestres.
“The goal is to come up with an agreement that will be a win-win for both the city and the county,” said Reitman.
“It is really time we started working together on this,” said Councilwoman Chris Hodges.
“Yes, I really believe it will happen,” said Madison Mayor Fred Perriman.
“We may not get everything we want, but I think they will work with us on this,” said City Manager David Nunn.
“I would like to be able to come to something that works for everybody…when it’s city tax dollars and county tax dollars you are spending on attorneys, we all lose,” said Councilman Rick Blanton.
The council also discussed the path forward on PRDs, the controversial zoning tool, deciding to attend a series of educational workshops before making any decisions.
“This is just such a complicated issue,” said Hodges. “We really need to educate ourselves on this, think of all the pros and cons, and unintended consequences before going forward.”
“I am still uncomfortable about it, and I have studied this,” said Joe DiLetto, city councilman. “Studying it as much as I have, if I don’t fully understand it, I doubt anyone else here does either.”
City staff is going to look into retaining a zoning specialist to lead workshops for the council and members of the public.
Elizabeth Bell, a Historic District resident who led the opposition against PRDs, attended the retreat and asked to be included in the process of picking who leads these workshops.
“The goal here is educational,” said Reitman. “To find someone who has credibility in both historic preservation and development.”
Councilman Blanton, who voted to eliminate PRDs, cautioned the council to be wary going forward.
“I may or may not change my mind through a series of workshops on this, but we have to be careful in what we decide,” said Blanton, who fears PRDs could be used as a “land grab” or result in over-density throughout the city.
Councilman Crawford agreed. “Whatever we do here will be the future of our city,” said Crawford. “We have to really look at this and do what is best for the people who live there. They are the important ones.
Councilwoman Carrie Peters Reid stressed that this decision should take the entire city into account, not just the residents of the Historic District.
“We have to make this decision based on what is best for the whole city. We have to look at how this affects the entire City of Madison,” said Reid.
The council also discussed how to enhance economic development, finding ways to attract more businesses and industries to the city. One of the obstacles for the council has been securing broadband Internet service, one of the features companies and private citizens consider when relocating.
Hodges has been meeting with state legislatures about it, but even they cannot secure broadband Internet.
“This is a statewide problem,” said Hodges. “But it is beyond anything that the state can even do at this point. All we can do is hope that this new incoming administration will add it to the infrastructure spending.”
The council noted that more locally available jobs are already here, but Morgan County’s workforce is ill-equipped for them.
“We are having to import people from other areas to fill these jobs. Thankfully, the school system is addressing the problems with our workforce through the coming College and Career Academy,” said Hodges.