Staff Photo: Jason Braverman . In this fie photo, Mike Mason addresses a crowd of supporters at the Peachtree Corners "Yes" party on election night. Mason served as the president of the campaign and will run unopposed for the city's mayor.
A year ago, Peachtree Corners was a neighborhood. What a difference a year has made.
On July 1, 2012, the northwestern Gwinnett enclave became the county's newest and biggest city, and newly elected leaders had the task of starting a government from scratch.
In the past 12 months, the mayor and council have hired three city employees, opened a City Hall, started up services and even purchased the city's first piece of real estate.
Leaders even managed to zero out their property tax rate due to unexpectedly high revenues from business licenses and other fees.
In a Q&A with senior writer Camie Young, Mayor Mike Mason looks back on Peachtree Corners' first year and what to expect in year two.
CAMIE YOUNG: What is the biggest accomplishment of the city's first year?
MIKE MASON: Without question, it was the sense of working together in the best interest of the community we achieved when we purchased the land located across from the Forum rather than let it be developed as garden apartments. This move would have been controversial for any city but especially so for a new city still in start-up mode. It took courage for the council to pull together and do the right thing and I was very proud of them. We have issued an RFP (Request for Proposals, similar to a bid process) to sell the property to developers interested in building a mixed-use town center in this location. We are currently awaiting responses to the RFP.
CY: What services are up and running?
MM: We took over planning and zoning and code enforcement Jan. 1, 2013, and commercial sanitation on Feb. 1, 2013.
CY: Which services are you still working on beginning and when do you believe that will be accomplished?
MM: We are currently in the process of choosing a (residential) sanitation vendor, which we will transition from the county on Jan. 1, 2014. This is the earliest possible date we could make this transition since citizens have paid the county in advance for this service. All other services, police, fire, etc, are being provided by the county and we will complete intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) addressing these services before year end.
CY: Give a quick run-down on the city government. Number of employees, annual budget, millage rate, dates and times of key public meetings.
MM: We have three city employees: a city manager, a community development director and the city clerk. We also have five contractors from CH2M Hill, Charles Abbott and Terra Mark who provide the day-to-day services for our citizens.
Our initial start-up budget for 2012-13 was about $2.7 million with a 0.85 millage rate (for property taxes). Our proposed budget for 2013-2014 is $3.8 million but we were able to reduce the millage rate to 0, since we have been successful in redirecting other sources of funding, like business licenses, from Gwinnett County to fund the city. The increase in the budget is primarily to add additional code enforcement resources, to implement the recommendations from comprehensive land use plan, and because the prior year budget had only partial-year expenses in some categories.
When Gwinnett County implements their (new) millage rate (the service delivery strategy agreement required the county to reduce the millage rate charged citizens of a city that were duplicated in the millage rate of the county), it will be less costly to live in the city of Peachtree Corners than in unincorporated Gwinnett County. Achieving cost effective, responsive local government was one of our goals in becoming a city and we are very fortunate to have achieved it in our second year of operation.
We hold two City Council meetings per month, on the first and third Tuesdays at 7 p.m.
CY: How have the citizens reacted to the new government? Is there one issue that has brought the most residents out to a meeting?
MM: The one issue that has gotten the most attention is the same as our biggest accomplishment: the purchase of the land across from the Forum. Most citizens were overjoyed that their city could stop apartments and create a landmark "downtown" area.
CY: What is your take on the first year? Was it hard? Was it successful?
MM: The first year has been very challenging, physically, intellectually and emotionally, for all of us. Most still work full time and have families so the additional time required to start up the city has been a strain. The learning curve is very steep for newly elected officials since we have to quickly absorb the state laws that apply to local government for each function and service we implement and explain it all to a curious, and not always trusting, public at the same time. Lastly, we are all new to local government so initially we were deeply involved in details that established cities don't have to address.
But things are getting better, and I give full credit to the addition of our city manager, community development director and city clerk. We were very fortunate to find excellent professionals who run the day-to-day business of the city and handle the details, which we initially had to address. Now, the council sets policy and the staff implements, so life is stabilizing at our "new normal" as elected officials. At the end of year one, I believe the city is clearly successful and on the right track for the future.
CY: What do residents have to look forward to in the next year?
MM: I am excited to see the town center developed across from the Forum and I know that is shared by the citizens. We will also be implementing the recommendations from the comprehensive land use plan, which will target areas for redevelopment throughout the community, most significantly along the Holcomb Bridge corridor. Last, our citizens will realize a cost savings in their sanitation services on Jan. 1, 2014, which was one of the benefits of establishing a city.