Thomasville council discusses future of city leadership

Thomasville council discusses future of city leadership
(Source: WALB)
Keith Berry, interim city utitlites superintendent (Source: WALB)
Keith Berry, interim city utitlites superintendent (Source: WALB)
Councilman David Hufstetler (Source: WALB)
Councilman David Hufstetler (Source: WALB)
Councilman Jay Flowers (Source: WALB)
Councilman Jay Flowers (Source: WALB)

THOMASVILLE, GA (WALB) - All eyes have been on the city of Thomasville these past several months. Rightfully so, because many changes are happening within the city government and executive leadership positions.

Council officially splits the duties of the utilities superintendent and city manager position

This week the city council hired Keith Bass as the new interim general superintendent of utilities, which had many raising the question, "Why add a new salary to the budget?"

Councilman David Hufstetler said they aren't. He said right now they currently are without the salary of former city manager Steve Sykes and City Engineer Jerry Pionessa, which in 2017 totaled at around $320,000 combined.

"I'll put it like this, anyone who argues that what would be a reasonable salary that the city of Thomasville can't afford it, that's a fools argument," said Hufstetler.

Councilman Jay Flowers stands by his no vote saying he still is not sold on the idea.

"I don't know Mr. Bass; he has never said two words to me. I look forward to catching up with him and finding out, he is going to be our guy. The upheaval, the manner in which this happened, is that unfortunately, it made it that we can't undo, we can't back up," said Flowers.

Structure of the city: Who reports to who?

The structure of the city is going to change with a new leader coming in. Hufstetler said they have already thought about that and have a plan.

"For right now, does Keith Bass report to Kha McDonald? I firmly believe that when we get a permanent city manager and a permanent general superintendent of utilities that the superintendent of utilities will report to the city manager," explained Hufstetler.

Council looks to hire a new interim city manager

According to Hufstetler, there could be more changes on the way.

"We have an immediate need right here and right now for an interim city manager," said Hufstetler.

"No, I was not included in that conversation, when you and I got together it was the first time I've learned there is a search for an interim city manager," said Flowers.

Flowers said the council needs to be transparent about the vision they have for the city.

"I do think if the mayor and other council members would get together, and help define why are we making these changes and what next step and where do they expect us to go, I think that would settle things down. But certainly, I understand why people are nervous at this point"

Flowers wants to make sure they are keeping good leaders within the Rose City.

"We have a great city, a great operation. Most of that is going to hang on and be intact. We just don't know what the challenges are that are coming from these changes. But Thomasville is resilient, we have strong citizens and very strong staff. We just hope they all stay there because they are good quality and need what we need them to do," said Flowers.

What is the plan for permanent leaders: City manager and general superintendent of utilities?

"I will feel confident in both of these (new) interims being intimately involved in the search, not saying they will make the decision, I will want their input but the (UGA) Carl Vincent Institute will play a very large role in this. The two people, I envision, Keith Bass being one and the other will have enough experience, they will have enough experience involved in the Carl Vincent Institute," Hufstetler.

According to the current interim city manager, Kha McDonald, the city council will have a strategic planning retreat facilitated by UGA's Carl Vincent Institute on April 3. A preliminary agenda will be prepared by the UGA facilitator regarding the meeting's content and sent to the council for final review (in the coming weeks).

Flowers hopes the council sticks to that plan.

"It will give us a well-defined process that allows us to go into the market and find the best candidates. I am hoping the rest of the council wants to follow that path," said Flowers.

Importance of utilities in the city

It's been 23 years since the position of city manager and utilities superintendent has been held by two different people.

According to our news partners at the "Thomasville Times Enterprise," the city lowered utility rates back in October.

The city reduced the PCA by 25 percent, or from 12 mills per kWh to 9 mills per kWh. The decreased PCA was said to result in a savings of about $54 per year for residential customers, based on an average usage of 1500 kWhs per month.

For small commercial customers with average usage around 3,500 kWh per month, savings will be about $126 per year.

Former city manager Steve Sykes told the "Times Enterprise" back in October that a benefit of public power is that policy and rate decisions are made locally and can be responsive to community needs.

"We raise utility rates only when it is necessary, such as in cases where our costs have increased," Sykes explained. "Likewise, when our costs decrease, we can immediately pass those savings on to our customers."

In January, the new city council was asked to look at approving a potential rate increase.

Hufstetler said that the common belief is that the city would have lost money if the rate increase wasn't improved, but according to him, the city just wouldn't see as much profit.

"That utility company would have to fall over and die to not make money. It's a very efficiently run operation. It's a great concept. It's hard to ask a new council when they are first seated in January to vote for a utility increase when we weren't at the table. Even after we got elected we weren't at the table. Also in face of the other council miraculously deciding to lower electrical rates during the heat of the campaign," said Hufstetler.

Hufstetler said he doesn't believe the utility increase was needed.

"If they insinuate that it will cause us to lose money, there is no way they can show me that," said Hufstetler.

Becoming a more active council

During the most recent election, an outside business group in Thomasville filed an Open Records Request for documents relating to city employee bonuses.

Hufstetler said the council was never made aware of these bonuses and were never asked for approval. He called the bonus amounts excessive.

"The first one was given out in the middle of 2017, spread out over the total of 13 employees totaling $190,000. That is not counting the city manager's $55,000 bonus he received. My concern is the council did not know about it, we weren't allowed to vote on it or at least give a consensus," said Hufstetler.

According to Hufstetler, another round of bonuses was given out on December 27, for the 2017 fiscal year totaling $165,000, which does not include the $80,000 severance package approved by the council. The previous bonuses in June of 2017 were for the 2016 fiscal year.

"These bonuses they received were in the 25 to 40 percent range, which is unheard of in the world that I live in," said Hufstetler.

Hufstetler said he wants the council to be more active in the future and be a part of big expenditures like this.

"Absolutely, I do not want to micromanage. I have no problems with a city manager awarding bonuses up to what the council determines a reasonable percentage. But under the guides of what was done this past year, it's said that under the letter of the charter he can do that. If that's so, he could have tripled the amounts," explained Hufstetler.

Hufstetler said this will be one of many things discussed with a new city manager.

When WALB reached out to Interim City Manager Kha McDonald about the bonuses in February, this is the statement she released:

In 1995, the City of Thomasville implemented a "Share the Success" compensation program that would reward employees with incentive pay based on cost-savings, reduced worker's comp accidents and profitability. The program was developed under the guidance of the Wyatt Company, a leading compensation development firm. Share the Success distributions were available for employees (excluding some management staff) based on performance, hire date and recent promotions.

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