At-Large Post

Published 6:33 pm Friday, October 30, 2009

Southwest Georgia Oil Company executive Glennie Bench is running unopposed for the at-large Council seat.

At its past two annual retreats, the current Council has discussed the possible renovation and/or redesign of the two buildings that make up City Hall and the city-owned Kwilecki building into a more modern, functional structure. What’s your feeling on how the project should progress during the next two years?

Bench: Because the cost of renovation is paid for with SPLOST revenues, the project should proceed cautiously. Given the economic downturn, projected revenues from SPLOST may exceed actual collections. Monitoring collected revenues against projections to ensure the funds are available to pay for the renovation/expansion is of utmost importance. To the extent possible, we should move forward in stages so that at any given time, should SPLOST revenues fall short of projections, the renovation can be modified or curtailed to match revenues. It should be pointed out that the current year fiscal budget (2009-2010) only allocates funds for the architectural portion of the project while moving forward aggressively on projects like the sewer master plan, the river connectivity project, and the Bill Reynolds Sports Park Complex 3. I agree that these projects should be given priority over the City Hall renovation this year and our budget is in alignment with these priorities. It should also be noted that funding this and other projects with SPLOST revenues spreads that tax burden out beyond the city and county limits and creates a better return for city residents than other funding sources.

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The City of Bainbridge currently makes more than $100,000 per year from its 5 percent hotel/motel tax, at least 2 percent of which must be spent on promoting tourism. What do you think is the best way to spend this and other monies on tourism?

Bench: Promoting tourism is a multi-faceted effort. The City should use the tax revenues generated to focus on direct promotion and fund projects that have an indirect affect on tourism with other sources of revenue. As examples, direct expenses that would be worthwhile would be advertising or salaries spent on carrying out specific tourism events. There are a variety of expenditures that are worthwhile which have an indirect impact on tourism and are included in the current fiscal year budget. The downtown streetscape, the Sports Park Complex, tennis tournaments, Flint River Connectivity project, support for Chamber of Commerce programs, Convention and Visitors’ Bureau expenses, and salaries within the Community Development department. In addition, I would like to see resources devoted to other sports tournaments, such as baseball, softball, soccer, and competitive bass fishing. And while sponsoring some community entertainment events may be expensive, I believe the City should be proactive in offering community-wide events, whether funding them directly or working in conjunction with other organizations like the Chamber of Commerce.

Given the popularity of the city’s baseball/softball leagues and other Leisure Services programs, how would you like the council to support their growth?

Bench:The city spends approximately 12 percent of its General Fund budget on Leisure Services programs, indicating its high priority in our community. While we have done a tremendous job over the years bringing tennis tournaments into our city with the help of the Bainbridge Tennis Association, we lag behind in this effort for other sports—particularly baseball, softball and soccer. We have a perfect climate for almost year-round sports offerings and sports tournaments. Such tournaments, as well as hosting clinics and camps for these sports, offers an additional opportunity for participation by local athletes and enthusiasts, but are also tourism venues and have the potential to generate revenues to offset some, if not all, of the cost of the tournaments, clinics, and camps. It is imperative, however, that we have first-class facilities to host such events, that those facilities are maintained to high standards, and that we devote the appropriate resources to run the events professionally. Establishing a volunteer organization like BTA would be helpful in getting this effort to attract tournaments, clinics, and camps off the ground.

What are your ideas on how the city government can help encourage the creation of new jobs and bolster both existing and potential business activities?

Bench: We should re-write the revolving loan fund eligibility requirements to encourage its use, rather than its current language that puts barriers in the path of businesses. Such low cost capital is an excellent way to promote the creation of new jobs. The Streetscape project will indirectly impact retail and professional job creation by investing in the infrastructure of the downtown business district. The city should work hand in hand with the Chamber of Commerce to support existing businesses of all kinds and with the Development Authority to encourage new businesses to locate here. Such coordination should entail financial support, in-kind expenditures offered where appropriate, and an atmosphere of cooperation and priority.

Would you be in favor of enacting an ordinance that placed a preference on local bidders if it were worded in a legal manner?

Bench: While a local bidder preference is appealing because it would be a way of supporting existing business activities, I believe it would raise the cost of all city expenditures—not because local businesses are unfairly pricing, but because establishing such a preference would require giving certain businesses a “head start” and unless that margin of advantage is less than or equal to the “normal” profit for any given product or service, the cost of that product or service would most certainly rise. To further the example of a head start in a race, if a person is given a 10-foot advantage, they would take advantage of the entire 10 feet even if they only needed two feet to be competitive. Imagine if they didn’t even need a head start at all. Of course, the head start varies from person to person—or in this case, business to business. While such an advantage is beneficial to that particular business, it would come at a cost to all the residents of Bainbridge, causing everyone’s taxes, utility rates and fees to increase. Such a policy is also inherently anti-competitive, leading to fewer businesses bidding on products and services, and ultimately causing expenditures to rise even more. Additionally, it is almost impossible to legally structure such an ordinance, and the city must at all times operate within the law.

Declining overall revenues have made the drafting of the City of Bainbridge budget difficult in 2008 and 2009. How do you think the city can continue to balance its budget (spending no more money than it takes in)?

Bench: We’ve all heard the old adage, “There’s just too much month at the end of the money.” Our city budget is just like our family’s budgets in that regard and during difficult times like these, it is incumbent upon the city’s leaders to make sure all expenditures are incurred conservatively, that all departments are involved in finding cost-saving opportunities, and that all revenues are properly collected and accounted for. I believe we can continue to balance our budget by getting the most out of taxpayer’s money by looking at the efficiency, effectiveness, and impact of every dollar spent. If our economic downturn continues for a protracted period of time, we may have to sacrifice expenditures that are beneficial in the long-term in order to balance the budget in the short-term. That’s no different that what families have to do every day. We should make sure we are getting the most “bang for our buck” with existing expenditures before further cost-cutting efforts are considered.

Both elected officials and citizens have indicated a demand for more pedestrian walkways and crossings, as well as the addition of more bike lanes. How should the City Council proceed on this issue?

Bench:Pedestrian walkways and crossings as well as bike lanes have been included in the priorities established at several recent City Council Planning retreats. Unfortunately, other priorities have taken precedence and we have not seen a concerted effort on this project. To the extent that walkways and/or bike lanes can be incorporated into roads as road work is being done, it should be a priority. This will not result in the progress the public has asked for, however. In order to see more aggressive work on this issue, I think we should pursue grant funding on a broader scale and we should consider devoting a portion of future SPLOST revenues to it.

Although city officials state there is a 90 percent occupancy of downtown buildings, there are still a few buildings that are unoccupied or in need of repair. What role should the council have in promoting downtown business and activity?

Bench: By devoting a portion of SPLOST proceeds to improving the downtown infrastructure, the city is supporting downtown business. Promoting grants for businesses to improve their appearance, revolving loan funds for businesses to use for funding growth and expansion, and devoting resources to the city’s Community Development Department, whose staff works hand in hand with downtown businesses and other organizations to promote the downtown business district, are all vitally important components of city government’s duties and responsibilities to our residents. We should also investigate the effectiveness of offering incentives to businesses for investing in downtown properties. Incentives such as tax abatement or utility rate discounts may be very effective ways of promoting private investment in downtown buildings and businesses. We should also be proactive in sponsoring community events that bring people downtown, working hand in hand with businesses to expand their customer base.

Public Safety statistics indicate the city has issues with violent crimes (some of them gang-related), arsons and nuisance animals. How would you seek address those problems?

Bench: Increasing the presence of our public safety officers in high crime areas has been shown to be effective in other communities and should be prioritized in Bainbridge. A visible force is not only a deterrent to crime, but also serves as an opportunity for public safety officers to connect with those residents who want their neighborhoods to be safe and more secure. We also need to make sure we’re hearing the concerns of our residents, and getting our public safety and elected officials out into neighborhood meetings to keep communication open will be important in addressing all types of crime in the city.

City Manager Chris Hobby has said that due to the state of the economy, the current budget excludes any direct spending on several community events, including entertainment in conjunction with its 4th of July fireworks in 2010. How do you think the council should decide whether or not to continue funding for city-sponsored community events in future years?

Bench: While the decision not to fund these events has already been made for the current fiscal year, I believe these events are generally worthwhile. High cost events should be postponed until we have stabilized financially, but the city can and should pursue lower cost events. The need for tourism, supporting local businesses, and providing “quality of life” events for residents does not stop because of economic hard times.