Now that the conflict of interest issue has been resolved with Mayor Jamie Cater and any possible violation on signage, the Tifton City Council will proceed with discussion on signage in the Historic District.
For several months, council members have been discussing signage issues in the district and proposed revisions, while also hearing from concerned residents and business owners in that area. Another concern that has been presented to the council is interior signs.
At a previous workshop, city resident Bonnie Sayles, who resides in the Historic District, told council members that one resident commented to her that flashing interior signs are alarming to him. She said the neighborhood doesn’t want it and neither does she and her husband, who reside near a business that does have an interior sign.
Endless Summer Day Spa owners Hal and Thea Baxley were also present at that workshop and noted that their interior sign is in compliance with the current policy. With them owning a business in the Historic District, Hal has expressed many times at council meetings and workshops his concerns with certain signs not being allowed in the district, which could potentially help attract customers.
As far back in March of last year, he went before the council and addressed the Tifton Historic Preservation Commission’s denial of his application for the installation of a 42x16 inch scrolling LED sign to be placed on the top of the business’ existing sign. He and his wife appealed the denial and asked for the council’s support on their behalf in obtaining a permit for the proposed signage.
However, about a week later, after much discussion and input from members of the HPC and citizens who live in the Historic District, the council unanimously voted in a called meeting to uphold the HPC’s decision to deny the Baxley’s application for the installation of the scrolling LED sign.
Following these meetings, several others were held to discuss signage issues in the Historic District. This has recently led to the council’s special called meeting that was held Wednesday afternoon at the Welcome Station. Among the list of topics was sign regulations.
Cater noted Code Enforcement and others enforcing the rules and regulations are just following ordinances. He also asked, “Why should one business have to go before the HPC and one doesn’t?”
Wilmot informed the council that they could let the HPC deal with signs on a case-by-case basis or they could say what signs are allowed and in what specific areas. He said the council seemed to agree with Option 1, which was drafted up by Wilmot with council input. This information was presented to council members at a previous workshop to discuss and make any revisions.
At a previous workshop, Cater had expressed he didn’t want the HPC to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. He said his whole concern was that a business located inside the Historic District and a business outside the Historic District need the same guidelines.
When discussing electronic graphic display signs, Councilwoman Julie Smith expressed she would not be in favor of allowing these types of signs at all in the Historic District. An EGD sign is a sign or portion thereof that displays electronic static images, static graphics or static pictures, with or without information (text). Councilman Chris Parrott said he would be OK with EGD signs being allowed in the commercial zoned district but not the residential zoned district in the Historic District.
Smith said she continues to get calls from constituents in the Historic District who don’t want EGD signs.
“What makes downtown unique is aesthetics,” she said. She added that some businesses don’t want to come forward and voice their opinion about the matter because they believe they will get a negative impact.
“They don’t want this,” she said, noting she hasn’t had one person who has contacted her support it. Smith said she can’t support what her constituents don’t want.
On the other hand, Cater said he has heard from constituents who do want EGD signs. He added based on a committee they appointed, the group was in favor.
The meeting continued with Councilman Wes Ehlers informing the council that he contacted Leigh Burns with the Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division. At a previous workshop, Ehlers had noted that he didn’t want to vote in favor of something that would interfere with the state and cause the city to lose grant money by allowing EGD signs. He said if the state was OK with it, he would be as well.
Wilmot and Bert Crowe, director of the environmental management department, noted that there’s already something in place to regulate the area of window the sign can cover (can’t cover more than 30 percent). Cater, Parrott, Terrell and Ehlers were in favor of the policy that’s already in place, which only limits the square footage of a sign covering the window.
Smith, however, gave an example of a particular business in downtown that has a sign on the inside of their business facing out. She said those passing by can’t tell whether it’s on the outside of the building or the inside. With this point, City Manager Larry Riner noted that an outside sign could then be placed on the inside of a business. Cater looked at Riner and asked if he was voting on the matter. Smith said, “I think he’s pointing out we’re being ambiguous.”
To date, no vote has been taken on the sign regulations. Wilmot told council members that they would have to meet again for another workshop and then the proposal would have to go before the Planning and Zoning Board before they could vote. He will draft up a proposal to send to Burns.
In other business, the council discussed retirement. Riner said there are four alternatives to choose from. In July of last year, city officials unfroze the defined contribution plan. Riner said they have actually budgeted enough this year for the second alternative, which they had to add $700,000. The cost comes out to be $2.7 million.
Wilmot discussed a 3 percent COLA, and informed council members they had retirees getting a 3 percent COLA that weren’t entitled to it. This violates the retirement plan. He said they can take this before the IRS and request forgiveness. He said those who started working for the city in 1997 and are still employed are entitled to the 3 percent COLA.
Wilmot told the council that they have to look at continuing with the COLA or recoup what was given to those who were not entitled to the 3 percent (42 people).
Smith asked if there would be any penalties, and Wilmot said he didn’t think so, but he wouldn’t be surprised if there were. He noted it will cost $5,000 to have the IRS review the matter.
Smith said it’s not fair for them to request money back from those who got the COLA, because it was the city’s fault. However, she agrees with them not continuing to pay those people who were not entitled to it when going forward with the process. Other council members agreed. Cater appointed a committee involving Parrott and Ehlers to look at the numbers.
Wilmot said they would need to submit a corrected plan to the IRS. Riner said they will move forward with those people who are entitled to the 3 percent COLA.
To contact reporter Latasha Ford, call 382-4321.