Economic development was one major topic, with the entire council expressing support for finding additional occupants for the Highland 75 industrial park. They also believed infrastructure repairs and improvements to city utilities should continue to make the city ready for possible economic growth.
Other topics discussed over the three-hour, free-flowing session held Saturday at the Public Safety Headquarters included a proposed city park on the north side of Cartersville, which council members would be running for re-election this year, the possibility of starting a second industrial park and the likelihood of raises for city employees.
Council members had previously met with department heads during an 8-hour meeting Friday where department heads raised their greatest concerns and spoke about their proposed goals.
Council member Jayce Stepp then mentioned he was surprised to hear the department heads ask about raises, as it had not been mentioned before.
Mayor Matt Santini said he was glad the department heads brought up raises, as he believed it was something that needed to be out in the open where the council could discuss it.
“I do think it’s something that really needs to be talked about. It needs to be brought up every year at these visions, especially in the times we’re in,” he said.
City Manager Sam Grove said he was not yet seeing any signs of excessive turnover in city employment due to raises, or the lack thereof. However, he was unsure if he had worked hard enough to make room in the city’s budget for employee raises, as every year he informs department heads they, and their departments, can have raises if they can budget for them.
“I don’t think I’d fault you in either advocating or not advocating enough because the clear direction the council has given you from a budget perspective is — even two years ago when you did get raises in — was no reduction in services and no increases in millage rate,” Santini said.
Council member Louis Tonsmeire Sr. believed the council’s ability to discuss raises sent a good signal to city employees.
“Well, I think it’s important for them to understand that we are making an effort. We’re looking at it seriously and that, comparably to what’s happening in the private sector, we’re doing, perhaps, the best we can,” he said. “But I also think it’s incumbent upon us to let them know that we are paying attention to that and that matters, and for us it’s balancing between what they want and what the public will allow.”
The idea of starting a second industrial park was voiced by the Bartow-Cartersville Joint Development Authority, but the council did not believe it was time to begin planning another industrial park.
Santini said there was still a great deal of land available in Highland 75, as there was only one signed occupant so far. He did not think it was time for the city to take on another load of debt when it had just paid off its debt incurred with Highland 75.
“We don’t need to own land to be in the economic development business,” he said.
Public Service Associate Catherine Bennett of the University of Georgia, who acted as moderator during the two-day session, led the council to the question of succession planning for elected officials. She asked the council to consider what it would look like in the near future and which department heads would be making up the city’s staff.
Council member Kari Hodge, who is up for re-election this year, said she would be running for another term. Tonsmeire said he would be running this year as well. Santini then confirmed he would be running for re-election himself.
Diane Tate said she would not make a decision on whether to run for re-election until sometime this summer. If she decided not to run, she added, she would work to find a handful of potential candidates.
“I feel that if a person is not going to run for an office ... I would feel the personal responsibility to get out there and shake it up a little bit and try to find — not choose someone for my position at all — but to find two, three, four people that were interested. [I would] not just leave it to chance because I would feel very strongly that I would want somebody that’s really interested to run. That’s how I feel about it personally,” she said.
Council member Lindsey McDaniel Sr., whose current term does not expire for another two years, echoed Tate.
“The only thing I can say is if I feel two years from now the way I do today, I’ll stay. But I do have somebody in mind and he’s part of the city right now in one of the planning groups,” he said.
Council member Lori Pruitt also was unsure if she would run for another term, but she added she would make that decision in the next two years.
Grove said he would stay on as city manager, at the council’s pleasure, at least for the next four years. As for department heads, he continued, he was not aware of anyone’s immediate retirement. He added there were a number of viable department head candidates employed now, which would allow the city to hire from inside its ranks if needed.
The discussion then turned to the long-running plans to put a park on the north side of Cartersville. Stepp said it was one of the main topics his constituents asked him about.
“I mean, we’ve got multiple baseball fields, but the complete package ... I think we are way behind recreation-wise in regards to facilities. We have land, and we’ll talk about it later, but the north side park and what we’ve got in the 2014 [Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax], if we can tackle a bit of that with north park ... it is a, as much as people are concerned about buying tractors and engineering jobs and all that stuff, I get as many or more calls about recreation,” he said.
Stepp also wondered if there was a law requiring the city to prioritize specific projects within a certain SPLOST category, such as recreation. City Attorney David Archer did not believe such a law existed, but he agreed it was a good question. Grove added the council would be making that decision soon, as time and funds were limited and the city would not be able to handle every possible recreation project.
Hodge questioned the need for a north Cartersville park, citing the availability of state parks and the coming LakePoint Sporting Community & Town Center.
“We’re sitting straight across from Red Top Mountain State Park. We’re five years away from having the largest sports community complex at LakePoint. At what point do we determine we’re going to take all this as a vision of a whole instead of the city investing more money into another park to have constant maintenance over the next 40 years? I guess that’s what I’m trying to say, so I’m looking at it at a larger perspective than just at the fact that there’s not a park on the north side of town,” Hodge said.
Later in the meeting, Pruitt said a north park was necessary, as Dellinger Park was sometimes too busy or crowded to fully enjoy. In reference to the cost of buying land, she said it would be possible to build a smaller, more efficient park to meet the needs of the community.
“There are some very forward-thinking designs. Matt [Santini] and I talked about some very forward-thinking designs in parkland now because city space is so rare to find that it can do multiple things on a smaller piece of land,” she said.
Pruitt and Santini both referenced a park in Cobb County that contains two soccer fields in a park approximately a mile wide, with full illumination and a jogging trail around the perimeter. A park could be done in a similar style in Cartersville so long as the parks and recreation department decided what it wanted to do with the park. All council members agreed the department needed to decide what the park’s purpose would be before they could decide where to put it.
Pruitt also asked for Grove to consider asking Cartersville residents what type of recreation they would like to have in the city during this year’s citizen survey.
Near the session’s end, Santini asked the council to think about partnering with a private corporation to improve the housing authorities in Cartersville. He said the company he had in mind has worked with Acworth and Marietta in the past and the resulting projects benefitted both cities. Considering the locations of Cartersville’s housing authorities, he said, they could be developed into areas of economic growth.
“It’s not something that’s got to be done tomorrow. But I think it’s something that as we look, like I said, some of those areas that our housing authority is in now can be transformed [to be] even nicer than they are. As Sam [Grove] said, increase foot traffic [downtown]. They could actually become little city centers,” Santini said.
Moving on to the subject of the downtown area, Hodge said she would like to see the Downtown Development Authority work in the next year to advertise downtown businesses. She cited the coming construction and foot traffic for LakePoint, saying it would be vital for some businesses to start marketing themselves now so they could take advantage of the expected growth.
As she wrapped up the visioning session, Bennett thanked the council for working so well together over two days.
“I am not kidding. I’ve been on several retreats this season. It is very refreshing to be in an innovative group that gets along so well and is respectful of each other. You all do good work here. Keep it up and thank you so much for having me,” she said.
After the meeting ended, Grove said these visioning sessions, which started after he became city manager in the 1990s, gave the council and department heads the ability to focus on the larger issues of running Cartersville.
“The value of it is having the decision makers in the room, with staff being away from regular business, and taking time to really think and be deliberate about what we want to do not only in the year ahead but in the near term,” he said.
The Public Safety Headquarters they were sitting in, Grove added, was just one project that came out of the council’s visioning sessions.
Santini agreed, saying the open meetings were an important way for the council to hear from their department heads.
“I think it’s valuable as a member of council, and as mayor, to be able to have that extended period of time with our department heads, to hear what they have on their minds and what their vision is for running these departments,” he said. “Because, I mean, they’re running utility companies that are helping to fund the operations of the city that help keep the taxes — our portion of the taxes — low.
“So to hear what their vision is and what their needs are and to get their input on the direction of the city, I think that’s real critical for us as policymakers to have that extended period of time with them.”