BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – Blue Ridge Finance Director Alicia Stewart met informally with council members elect Robbie Cornelius, Nathan Fitts and Kenneth Gaddis along with Mayor Donna Whitener Wednesday evening, Dec. 13, to discuss city priorities, projects and finances for the coming term.
In the process, Stewart presented the incoming council members with a wealth of city financial information in an effort to familiarize Cornelius, Fitts and Gaddis with the day-to-day operations of the city and the various procedures required of the City Council regarding financial operations. In addition, the finance director also fielded a number of questions from the future council members.
Among the many projects and potential projects mentioned during the course of the 90-minute session were a possible parking deck, a downtown bathroom facility and revitalizing the city pool.
The potential parking deck project, a topic of conversation for the city for quite some time, was discussed, and Whitener told Cornelius, Fitts and Gaddis the city would like to build a two-story deck on the city hall property to alleviate downtown parking congestion.
Regarding the downtown bathroom facility, Mayor Whitener explained plans have already been drawn for a two-story bathroom complex to be built near the depot building and the project is expected to be financed with grant money from the Appalchian Regional Commission (ARC).
As for the city pool, Gaddis suggested talking with representatives from Union County concerning that county’s recent city pool project. “We could mirror that (project) … that would be great for the citizens,” Gaddis stated.
Another city issue discussed at the meeting was water loss. Whitener stated Blue Ridge was once among one of the worst municipalities in Georgia regarding the average percentage of water loss. According to Whitener, the percentage of city water loss from aging water infrastructure near the beginning of her mayoral administration stood at 58 percent. Whitener added that while the city has improved in this area, maintaining those improvements has been difficult.
Gaddis, owner of All Choice Plumbing, mentioned the future state Route 5 highway expansion along with a water main replacement project for that area of the city would help with water loss. “I’ll be surprised at what percentage (water loss) drops instantly,” Gaddis added.
Prioritizing road paving was another area of concern Whitener pointed out, and the mayor stated the city at one time rated roads and streets according to need. Whitener added she would like to see a return to that policy during the next term. “We’re going to rate (roads and streets) again. That’s one of the projects that I have planned,” Whitener stated.
Later, when Gaddis asked Stewart what improvements she would like to see come from the incoming City Council, Stewart answered by saying better prioritization of projects was needed.
“We need a good five to 10-year capital plan with clear objectives and prioritize (those objectives),” Stewart said. “We need) a clear, focused idea of where (the city is) heading. what we’re doing and what we want to get done first.”
“I think we all agree with that,” Fitts told Stewart.
Blue Ridge’s Finance Department, especially Alicia Stewart, Blue Ridge’s Finance Director was the only bright spot in Jarrard and Davis’ inquiry into the Blue Ridge City Council and operations at the City Hall. The inquiry stated, “While it does appear that financial policies were largely non-existent or incomplete in years past, the City’s current Financial Director Alicia Stewart has worked to implement purchasing policies that are complaint with the law. Later, in the same paragraph, Jarrard and Davis compliment Ms. Stewart saying, “The City’s Finance Director displayed a strong understanding of local government financing.”
Ms. Stewart took came to work at Blue Ridge City Hall in 2011, when the former finance director stepped down due to health reasons. Prior to beginning as Blue Ridge’s Finance Director, Stewart worked at Land and Associates in Ellijay where she performed governmental audits for the firm. After that she worked as the Finance Director for Calhoun for four years. Taking the job at Blue Ridge gave her about two and one-half more hours in her day; the hour and fifteen minute commute became twenty minutes from her home in Epworth. In fact, Fannin County has always been her home except for a few early years and time away at university.
Stewart trained in accounting during the early 2000s when tales of crooked books were constantly in the news with the most publicized example being the black holes in the accounting books of Enron Corporation and the dissolution of Arthur Anderson, one of the five largest accounting firms in the world. Needless to say, the concepts of transparency and ethics were constant lessons in her accounting and business management classes at the University of North Georgia. To keep her CPA licensure current, Stewart must take 40 hours of classes per year. Her classes are always specific to government financing and are through Georgia Government Finance Officers Association. Blue Ridge’s hiring of a CPA to run its Finance Department is in line with the trend in local government finances. As people retire from positions of local government finance directorships, small towns and rural counties are hiring CPAs because of their knowledge of how to create budget transparency.
Her job as Finance Director is more like being a pipeline for financial transactions. She cannot approve purchases or write checks. She makes sure that the withdrawals and deposits accurately represent their respective budget categories and that there are enough reserves in the budget categories. Stewart says that her role in monitoring the finances is one of the checks and balance systems in place so that the same person cannot purchase and write the check. Her first project as Finance Director was to set different procedures for purchasing and paying for different dollar thresholds. Also, she advises Blue Ridge in its bid processes.
Previous accounting methods used by Blue Ridge were more informal. According to Stewart, there wasn’t conscious intention on the part of the previous generations of Finance Director; it was just how small town governments used to work. Stewart believes that financing procedures must be black and white, clear and concise, workable without too much paperwork. In addition to Georgia’s Sunshine Laws, another reason to step up more formal accounting procedures is Blue Ridge’s incredible growth.
One accounting task that Stewart is not responsible for is the end-of-year audit. This year Welch, Walker and Associates in Ellijay will perform the audit. For the previous 15 years or more, Renee Bidez, CPA performed the audits. He went into retirement last year, but still assisted Welch, Walker and Associates with the audit so that there was a seamless transition. Georgia governments must post their audits on the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts website
Stewart also gave an outlook of Blue Ridge’s financing. Right now, there isn’t a lot of extra money, but overall everything is fine. There are big projects requiring heavy expenditures coming up within the next year and one-half. First is repair to Blue Ridge’s water infrastructure. This includes laying water lines in Mineral Bluff and water plant upgrades. The other extremely large expenditure is Main Street renovations including repaving, storm water drainage and sewer line connections. She says, “We can pay for it. We just have to plan for it.”
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