Flowery Branch City Council gave its first OK Thursday night to setting up streetlight charges throughout the city.
The council voted 4-1, with Councilman Tara Richards the lone nay vote on the measure, which is aimed at recovering costs for the service while correcting the inequity of the city paying for public streetlights for some residents but not for others.
Council members in favor of the ordinance were quick to say that much could change before the final vote, set for Oct. 20 at City Hall.
"This is just the first step in moving the process forward - it doesn't mean absolute passage or that anybody is in favor or not in favor of anything in this ordinance," Councilman Kris Yardley said.
"We still have to study this. We still have (to) give this out in front of the people and determine which direction we're going to go with this."
The city's 2011-2012 budget, which became effective July 1, covers streetlight costs through October, leaving open how to continue funding them the rest of the fiscal year.
Flowery Branch currently spends nearly $36,000 per year on streetlights.
Officials have said they are struggling with rising expenses and flat or dropping revenues, and are having to make tough budget decisions.
"We really are going to have to decide what our priorities are going to be," Councilwoman Amanda Swafford said. "I wish we had unlimited funding to satisfy everybody's needs, but we don't.
"So, we've really got to look at different ways to address the priorities of what you want your government to do."
Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association, said Flowery Branch is not alone in dealing with the issue.
"There are other communities — cities and counties — where they have a separate streetlight fund where they charge residents," she said, adding she didn't have an exact number.
Flowery Branch proposes setting up two special assessment districts — one for Newberry Point, Madison Creek and Portsmouth subdivisions — and one for all properties in the city, including the three subdivisions.
Between both districts, Newberry Point and Madison Creek residents would pay $45 per year and Portsmouth residents $40 per year. The difference in charges between those subdivisions is based on the number of lights and properties served by the lights.
All other taxpayers would pay $11.
In all cases, the charge would be assessed through property tax bills.
"By isolating (the three subdivisions), they are being treated the same way every other subdivision is in the city in the sense that every other subdivision is either paying for their streetlights on an individual basis or paying through their (homeowners association)," City Planner James Riker said earlier this week.
The city has a special arrangement with Madison Creek, spurred by subdivision residents complaining they were paying a high rate to Georgia Power for lights while the city was covering the costs for others.
That agreement was reached in February, with Flowery Branch paying Georgia Power a much lower governmental rate and getting reimbursed by the subdivision's homeowners association.
As part of the agreement, city officials talked about crafting a streetlight ordinance aimed at equally distributing the cost of streetlights among all property owners.
"We had no idea we were opening such a large can of worms," said Charles Goodwin, a Madison Creek resident.
"It sort of reminds me of what happens in Congress. Somebody goes there with a simple request and it ends up with a whole new law passed."
Fred Richards, another Madison Creek resident, said he believes "the way to equal the whole field is just give a special assessment to the residents of Newberry Point and Portsmouth.
"Then, every subdivision is paying for their own lights and the general tax money ... goes to paying for all the other lights in all the common areas. It just seems like the simplest, fairest thing to do."
A second, and final, public hearing is set for 6 p.m. Oct. 6 at City Hall.
If the fees are approved, they would be part of property tax bills going out Nov. 1.