Friday, January 3, 2003

Traffic, political fights in Peachtree City in 2002


Motorists who travel the often-clogged Ga. Highway 54 West in Peachtree City got fantastic news earlier this year when it was announced that the Georgia Department of Transportation was "fast-tracking" the widening of the thoroughfare to four lanes.

The project could begin as early as late summer, according to DOT officials. Right-of-way acquisition is 30 percent complete on the Peachtree City side and 70 percent complete on the Coweta side of the project.

The traffic jams on Hwy. 54 West have become routine both in the morning and afternoon, with noticeable slowdowns for motorists travelling east into Peachtree City.

While the two-and-a-half year estimated construction time will almost certainly slow things down further, DOT officials have pledged to do their best to keep traffic moving, especially during peak hours.

Other top stories in Peachtree City this year include:

Politics in Peachtree City took a rancorous turn coinciding with the entry of new Peachtree City Mayor Steve Brown.

The political rhetoric was at least partly to blame in the September resignation of long-time city manager Jim Basinger. After council declined to renew his contract, Basinger chose to resign.

Some council members "erroneously felt that I was still aligned with the previous administration," Basinger said at the time. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Just days before Basinger's resignation, former mayor Bob Lenox filed papers in Magistrate Court claiming Brown should be arrested for theft of city services for having a city employee drive one of his daughters to golf camp while he attended a meeting for the city.

Judge Joe Tinsley denied Lenox's request for an arrest warrant against Brown.

Before Lenox complained, Brown publicly cited himself for the slip-up, noting that the employee volunteered to take his daughter to golf camp. Brown also admitted violating the ethics ordinance.

After the arrest hearing concluded, Brown repaid the city the $8.94 tab for the estimated half-hour the employee spent on transporting his daughter to the Braelinn golf club.

Basinger was not the only long-time high-ranking city employee to resign this year. Director of Developmental Services Jim Williams resigned his post in June so he could become city manager in Fairburn. Williams said with Peachtree City being close to its build-out stage, he wanted the challenge of managing growth in Fairburn, which is becoming a popular destination for development.

Nor was Brown the only Peachtree City elected official to be scrutinized by Lenox. The former mayor filed an ethics complaint against councilman Steve Rapson in May, alleging that Rapson should have abstained from council votes regarding the city's development authority since his wife, Kristi, is suing them in federal court, alleging she was unfairly paid compared to then-tennis center director Virgil Christian.

The city's ethics board voted 3-2 that Rapson violated the city's ethics ordinance, but board members declined to issue a formal reprimand and "admonished" him instead.

Rapson contended that he felt compelled to vote on the matter, which was whether or not the council should hire an independent attorney to investigate the hotel-motel tax agreements Lenox signed with the development and airport authorities last year.

Lenox contended everything was done above board, but the independent attorney gave council an opinion that the contracts could be declared illegal in court.

Brown's ongoing dispute with the city's Development Authority over its share of the city's hotel-motel tax has also been a significant story in 2002.

Brown originally sought to cut the authority's share of the city's hotel-motel tax, which it uses to subsidize operation of the city's tennis center and amphitheater. The authority and city council approved similar agreements in November to resolve the matter, pending a few details, but since then Brown called for all the authority members to resign, citing financial mismanagement, particularly with several hundred thousand dollars of cost overruns at the tennis center expansion.

Councilmen Dan Tennant and Murray Weed, who negotiated the deal with several authority members, were caught off guard by the mayor's request. Tennant indicated he thought the mayor's request was out of line.

Since then, authority members reported the issue is still moving towards a resolution, but Brown is insistent on transferring the tennis center and amphitheater operations to a new sports and entertainment authority.

The city's airport authority, which depends on the hotel-motel tax revenues to fund capital improvement projects agreed in November to reduce its income from the hotel-motel tax.

In July, the City Council cut $1.3 million from its budget, with most of the cuts coming from its public improvement plan.

Finance Director Paul Salvatore warned council that it would face a similar fate next year since the increased expenses that hiked the budget aren't going away.

The lion's share of the $1.375 million budget hike was attributed to the increase of claims on the city's self insurance fund, which many pointed out that the council has no control over.

The cuts included the expansion of the Gathering Place ($104,000), paving a parking lot at the Meade softball fields ($250,000) and building restrooms and a concession area at the Kedron multi-purpose rink ($150,000). Also, council scaled down several projects including its street resurfacing program, cart path resurfacing program and improvements to the intersection of Huddleston Road and Dividend Drive.

Despite the drastic budget cuts, council agreed to increase property taxes through a .385 millage rate increase. The hike will cost an additional $31 a year on a home with a fair market value of $200,000, according to Salvatore.

The 9 percent increase in the millage rate was also rationalized to help avoid a more dramatic increase next year.

Without a millage increase this year, staff projected a 35 percent increase would be necessary next year to balance the budget.

The .385 mill increase will raise approximately $520,000 for the city.

Another of Brown's early initiatives, a moratorium on all development, was shot down by a court in February.

The moratorium was sought to give several committees more time to strengthen several development ordinance, but since the moratorium was overruled only one of those ordinances has been considered by council: for stormwater management.

In September, council approved lowering the golf cart driving age to 15, which allowed 15-year-olds with valid driver's permits to drive unchaperoned for the first time. Previously, the city required such drivers to be at least 16 years old.

Council also voted to allow the 15-year-olds to drive with up to three immediate family members" so they can transport their siblings when necessary. The 15-year-olds can also have just one passenger who is at least 15 years old, according to the new ordinance.

Lowering the cart driving age helped spark an onslaught of McIntosh students driving their carts to school which created a parking problem on Prime Point since carts weren't allowed on campus. But school officials created a separate golf cart parking lot on campus to solve the problem.

Peachtree City's industrial base took a hit in January when TDK Components USA announced plans to cut its work force by almost one-third as part of a restructuring plan that will eliminate an entire production line and streamline another.

The company cut approximately 100 jobs as it eliminated production of inductors. That will leave around 230 jobs at the plant for producing chip capacitors.

The moves were in response to a "significant drop-off in customer demand brought about by the current economic slowdown," according to TCU officials.

The reduction comes on the heels of TCU dropping its production of VHS tapes and computer CDs last year.

A $1.05 million federal grant to help expand Falcon Field was announced in April by U.S. Representative Mac Collins. The funds were used to purchase over 23 acres for the Peachtree City Airport Authority.

The tract, which was sold by Peachtree City Holdings, Inc., a subsidiary of Pathway Communities, is adjacent to the airport and will allow for future growth of hangar space. The authority wants to attract more aircraft service operations to Falcon Field as well as more jet traffic.

The authority will need to add infrastructure to the new property such as taxiways, hangar sites, access roads, and parking lots for automobiles and aircraft.

Another contentious issue for council this year was the traffic calming plan for Golf View Drive, a collector road. after hearing complaints from Golf View residents, council installed several four-way stops and two pairs of speed humps to slow down traffic.

Motorists who used the thoroughfare waged a honking campaign to protest, sounding off their horns as they passed along on Golf View.

Council later relented and removed most of the stop signs and part of the speed hump design.

Sadly, Peachtree City lost two community volunteers this year with the passing of long-time Development Authority member Tom Farr and Planning Commissioner Rich Schumacher.

Both men were lauded for the time and effort they gave toward making Peachtree City a better place.

In September, the six new covered courts at Peachtree City's tennis center were used to keep a women's professional tournament on track. Heavy rains and high winds that weekend also put a damper on the Great Georgia Airshow at Falcon Field as aircraft couldn't fly their full patterns due to visibility problems.

Also, a brief microburst brought strong winds that forced the evacuation of the public at Falcon Field.

This fall, Peachtree City got its first college presence as Clayton State College and University began offering continuing education courses at the newly completed tennis center office building. One of the facility's classrooms is wired with high speed Internet connections.

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