Originally created 09/15/03

Cusseta officials hope government consolidation will help debt-ridden city



CUSSETA, Ga. -- Cusseta officials hope the city government's upcoming consolidation with Chattahoochee County will help its troubled financial situation.

Serving as Cusseta's mayor has been "very stressful," said Kimberly Sparks, who's within weeks of giving up the post she's held for about six months. The merger will put the new consolidated Cusseta-Chattahoochee County government under the control of a new five-member commission.

"After we really got in here and learned what shape the city was in, it was upsetting to see the condition it had been in for years before," she said. "But everything is in the open now."

Some city officials have complained about a lack of communication among departments and financial mismanagement that has left Cusseta in a lot of debt.

Mayor Pro Tem Lillie Galbraith said the city's financial problems go back at least to the era of former Mayor J. E. "Sonny" Smith III, who retired in the late 1990s after more than three decades as mayor.

"For many years, he kept the milage rate down, and the city kept building debt," Galbraith said.

Galbraith called it "a typical small-town thing" of not doing everything by the books.

The city has lagged on paying off several debts, including a $50,000 bank loan and more than $25,000 due to a state police officers' fund.

City officials even used money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provided two loans for the city to build a water system, to pay off other debts, Sparks said.

Officials said a 8.2 mill property tax this fall plus other revenues anticipated should be enough to pay off the city's short-term debt.

State Auditor Russell Hinton said the city also is delinquent on both its 2001 and 2002 audit reports due the state, and unless those are turned in within two weeks, Cusseta could be declared an "unqualified local government" and ineligible to receive state funds.

Hinton said he would consult the state attorney general on how that would affect the new consolidated government.

County commissioner Tom St. John said the city's accountants plan to finish the 2001 report within days and the 2002 audit soon, and "we will be in full compliance with state requirements."