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Commodore Decatur Yacht Club Harbor Master John Hearn, right, and Franci Hector prepare for an afternoon of sailing on Lake Decatur last May. City leaders are discussing potential increases related to recreation on Lake Decatur.

DECATUR — Boat owners and other Lake Decatur users could see fee increases as city leaders contemplate how to make revenue for recreation on the lake cover the cost of supporting those services. 

During a study session at the Decatur Civic Center, council members directed city staff to look into how a gradual recreation fee increase could be implemented at the lake in the near future. No action was taken on the issue Monday, but City Manager Scot Wrighton staff will work to have a proposal for council to consider finalized "fairly quickly."

"There are no specific rate hikes at this time," he said before the meeting. "We're at the broad policy stage of this."

Wrighton said dealing with recreational fees is just one aspect of a larger conversation surrounding the city's stewardship of the lake and how it should manage costs and keep it clean in the aftermath of the $91 million dredging project that ended last year. 

In a memo to city council members, Wrighton said revenue from boat, dock, waterfowl hunting permits and other recreational fees does not cover the cost of expenses such as lake patrol, trash removal, barge deliveries, boat towing services, buoy placement and other services. Instead, he wrote, many of those costs are subsidized through the city's water fund. "City water customers are subsidizing about 51.5% of the city's recreational services whether they use the lake or not," he wrote. 

In 2018, city estimates show that recreational costs from the lake services division were $420,077, while recreational revenues were $203,762. The city also spent $556,591 on non-recreational expenses related to water quality and watershed management, such as testing fees, tree and brush removal, shoreline erosion control and mowing. 

Councilwoman Dana Ray said the discussion on how to make the lake fees equitable has been brought up before, but no action has been taken on it yet.

"This is something that has been long coming," she said. "It's been tabled long enough."

Councilwoman Lisa Gregory and Councilman David Horn agreed with Ray, saying the water fund subsidy should gradually be reduced or eliminated. 

Councilman Pat McDaniel urged staff to be cautious when discussing any further fee increases at the lake, as "we don't want to drive more people away. But again, we've got to cover costs. It's a tightrope to walk."

The council also directed Wrighton and his staff to work toward developing a natural resources plan for the lake in regards to protecting its watershed, continuing to prevent siltation and studying the potential benefits of lowering the nitrate level in the lake water by five milligrams.

Councilman Bill Faber suggested that outside experts, such as the Agricultural Watershed Institute and the Macon County Soil and Water Conservation District, should be included in developing such a plan. 

The city will also move forward with creating a joint-service agreement with the Decatur Park District to keep gas sales at the Nelson Park shoreline. 

The fuel sales discussion continues from last year, when the park district and city worked together to bring back fuel sales on the lake a few weeks after the park district said they would be discontinued. The decision to end the sales was met with an outcry from boaters, even though the park district only sold about 5,000 gallons a year from the pump.

The district had offered fuel for boaters since 2013 out of its Snack Shack building on the Nelson Park shoreline. The building had previously served as a restaurant for more than 30 years and was leased by the district to various operators until it took over operations six years ago.

Last May, the city agreed to share expenses of operating the docks as a temporary solution so that boaters could still pump gas on the lake.

Wrighton said the city will work with the district to continue this agreement, while looking into the possibility of hiring a third-party marina operator to oversee the fuel sales in the long-term. He said both government bodies are still working on the details of the agreement. The city and park district have collaborated since 2011 on the long-term Nelson Park lakefront development plan, which calls for new docks and a number of amenities in the park and along the shoreline. 

In other business, city leaders will also look into annexing about 400 properties along Decatur's municipal boundaries as a way to bolster its population totals for the 2020 Census. 

According to a memo provided to city council members, results of the Census directly affect the budgets of various organizations that provide services to Decatur, such as federal funding for food stamps, the National School Lunch Program and the Children's Health Insurance Program. 

The Census findings will also be used to distribute some Medicaid programs, WIC, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, highway construction funds and other programs. 

An estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau also shows that local communities can lose about $1,800 in federal funding for each undercounted person.

Population also determines local allotments for state income taxes, motor fuel taxes, state use taxes and personal property replacement taxes. The memo said that by using current distribution data from the state, city officials estimate Decatur will lose $171,540 yearly for every 1,000 people that leave the city come Census time.

Wrighton said the issue of dual responses from area fire protection districts and the Decatur Fire Department would also be tied into future annexing discussions. Some people who live near the edge of the city pay taxes for both the Decatur Fire Department and the volunteer stations, a situation the city hopes to correct. 

The city manager said the fire protection districts have been alerted of the city's desire to annex certain properties ahead of Monday's study session.

"Why should you pay twice?" Wrighton said. "It's not fair."

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Contact Jaylyn Cook at (217) 421-7980. Follow him on Twitter: @jaylyn_HR

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