PORTERDALE, Ga. — Frank Etheridge came into what some may consider a financial mess when he was hired as Porterdale’s interim city manager in August 2020.
But he has worked to put the historic town's finances on a manageable basis and even do some planning for the future after some years of what officials believed was financial mismanagement by a predecessor.
Etheridge said managing the small city's day-to-day affairs has given him new challenges almost daily.
"No two days are alike," he said.
A southeast Georgia native, Etheridge is an Air Force veteran who earned a master’s degree in Public Administration from Troy University-Dothan and his undergraduate degree in geography from UGA.
He began his public service work as city planner for Destin, Florida, and went on to be planning director for the Jackson and Habersham counties' governments, city manager for LaFayette and Pembroke and county manager for Randolph and Marion counties, all in Georgia.
The longtime government administrator and planning director was "between jobs" after serving as Long County administrator from 2017 to 2019 when he was hired as Porterdale' interim city manager.
However, after three months he was asked to stay on the job, he said.
Etheridge said he has enjoyed living in Newton County and working in Porterdale — a historic mill town built around the Bibb Manufacturing Co. in the early 20th century.
But Etheridge said he has found a few major challenges in his job.
"I would say it was a challenge working through the financials that we had and work with the changing staff," Etheridge said.
Etheridge came to Porterdale after a series of alleged missteps by predecessor Bob Thomson, whom city officials said had mismanaged the finances and left the city with unpaid bills.
Interim manager Robert Witcher had told council members in mid-2020 the city owed around $1 million to such agencies as the Newton County Water & Sewerage Authority and the Newton County government, which operates the Cornish Creek Water Treatment Plant.
The interim manager worked to generate more revenue by proposing some radical steps, such as cutting city employees’ pay by 20% and selling some city assets.
Etheridge said he worked with new City Clerk Kathy Bouttry combed through audits and worked with the Georgia Municipal Association to to identify what was actually debt.
They found some of what was labeled as "debt" was actually money planned for placement in the city's reserves.
He also found some past managers had borrowed from one account to pay another, which left its accounts chronically short.
"The General Fund actually owed the water fund money," Etheridge said.
"What we've been doing is offsetting costs that belonged to the water department so we could pay those bills. So we've been paying payroll for the water employees from the General Fund. We owe the fund money. That's been the challenge. We've worked with the auditor on that to make sure that we've stayed within the bounds."
He said the city worked out a repayment schedule with Water & Sewerage Authority and Newton County government.
The city was able to pay off what it owed the Water and Sewerage Authority in December 2021 and got current with the county government in early April, Etheridge said. It also is working to pay what it owes an engineering contractor, he said.
He said the challenge was how to equitably treat city employees while working through the debt.
Porterdale also is working to put some money in reserves and fund some needed assets.
"Right now, we're living on what we've got," he said.
Etheridge said the city also is still transitioning to a new accounting system to make financial management easier.
He said among his goals are replacing aging residential meters in the city by using federal COVID relief funds.
Etheridge also would like to replace its aging police department vehicles, and ask the city council to consider replacing the cramped City Hall building on Main Street.
He also doubles as the city's chief planner and is working with developers on their plans for two major multi-use projects.
The city, however, will not see any tax revenue from them until late 2024 at the earliest, Etheridge said.