Guest Column
Rusty Paul, District 3
Sandy Springs City Council

In 30 years of public life, I rarely have seen a more misleading headline than “Taxpayers get no share of spare $14M” (May 15-28, Sandy Springs Reporter).

Those funds will stay here for the sole benefit of Sandy Springs taxpayers, which was the core issue in our incorporation battle. Those funds will provide sidewalks, for which dozens of neighborhoods are clamoring. They will rebuild crumbling streets, relieve clogged intersections and resolve traffic problems caused by years of disrepair.

They will accelerate reconfiguration of the Morgan Falls youth sports complex. Every penny will benefit taxpayers directly by reversing a fraction of the infrastructure neglect that plagued Sandy Springs for 35 years under Fulton County’s governance.

From the input I received, the taxpayers appreciate the 53 miles of new pavement on the city’s 56 miles of primary thoroughfares, even though this paving does nothing more than maintain existing streets. They are gratified that traffic on Roswell Road will improve as our state-of-the-art, fiber-optic traffic management system soon rolls out along the city’s primary corridor. Yet, even with these major capital investments, we still have done little to boost transportation capacity, and our worst bottlenecks remain.

Dedicating the surplus to capital investments will make a tiny dent in approximately $500 million in collapsing storm sewers.

Now how did our $14 million accrue? The answer is simple: wise planning, smart budgeting and conservative revenue estimates. While the state faced a $4 billion revenue shortfall and communities across Georgia swallowed deep emergency cuts to balance their books, Sandy Springs reduced its operational spending. We didn’t face draconian cuts because we were already being frugal.

By reining in city operational spending during a slowing economy, we generated what every well-managed city hopes for: more revenues than expenses. If the headline writer’s beef is that those funds should go to reduce the millage rate, that is a worthwhile debate. While there is not unanimity, the overwhelming input I received from constituents is they want the infrastructure problems in the city fixed.

If we budget well and manage properly, we should end every year with an operational surplus. Municipal revenue estimates are as much art as science, and smart budgeting principles slightly underestimate revenues to provide a margin of safety from unexpected or unknowable situations.

Georgia law requires a two-month operational reserve to weather these potential crises. Prudence dictates at least a three-month reserve, something the city of Sandy Springs will achieve after three years of operation.

When we ultimately need to tap the municipal credit markets to fix a rapidly deteriorating stormwater system, the three-month reserve will save taxpayers more dollars through lower interest rates because of the higher bond rating this reserve will garner.

Contrast Sandy Springs’ situation, where we are adding 11 new police officers, with our sister city to the south. The city of Atlanta is furloughing officers, and burgeoning crime statistics reflect diminished police capacity.

Sandy Springs is not immune to the overall business climate. Thus, we are reducing spending next fiscal year by another $8 million. In cooperation with CH2M Hill, our private-sector partner, we are significantly lowering the cost of our city services contract by reducing headcount in departments with declining workloads and looking for new, more efficient ways to deliver services.

After listening to the debate over how to use the city’s remaining resources, I came down on the side of capital improvements because that is what a majority of my constituents are requesting from their “share” of the $14 million in operational savings.

Another factor in my decision is the prospect of declining property values, surely to be reflected in this year’s property tax assessments. I felt sensible management demands we reduce operational spending further, then use all available resources to fix our infrastructure before it deteriorates further and costs taxpayers even more in the future.

Regardless, I would much rather debate whether to use these operational savings on tax reductions or capital improvements than dealing with the financial challenges facing scores of other communities across Georgia. But to imply that taxpayers will receive no benefit from the operational savings, as the Reporter’s headline suggests, is regrettable.