The agenda for the Dade County Commission's regular January meeting on Thursday was mostly routine, but the recent trend of loose cannons showing up for the citizens’ participation part of the evening continued this month, providing enough excitement to keep a newshound awake. But let’s take things in order.
Accountant Jason Martin (left, at end of table) of Henderson Hutcherson & McCullough, the firm that performs Dade County’s annual audit, presented the commissioners a glowing financial report this year, congratulating them on the county’s $1.4 million fund balance. “I think three, maybe four years ago, that number was almost negative,” he said.
Martin reminded the commissioners of the budget cuts and employee furloughs tDade had endured during the bad times. He commended the county’s efforts to live within its means and the efforts of county staff to track spending. “It’s really paid off,” he said. Every department had underspent its allotted resources this audit period, said Martin.
“It’s like night and day,” said the accountant. “We didn’t have pleasant conversations four years ago.”
Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley pointedly asked about the inclusion of a “recommendations” section, eliciting the presumably expected answer that there was not one this year. “Recommendations” sections in past years have produced revelations interesting enough to keep anybody awake. But this time it was not to be. This time there were pleasant conversations.
Also on the agenda was renewal of the Georgia Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFACS)’s lease with the county for office space in the bottom of the Dade Administrative Building. The Dade DFACS office is the county branch of the Georgia agency, and Chairman Rumley explained that the rent the state pays Dade for it helps defray the expenses of the county building. “I wish every building in the county could be like that,” he said.
County Clerk Don Townsend said DFACS’s rent would remain the same for the coming year unless the agency decided to make the county responsible for cleaning the office and paying its utilities, in which case the rent would go up. The board voted to authorize Rumley to deal with those formalities.
The empty space longtime member Dora Crisp left when she resigned from the Dade Board of Tax Assessors remains gaping, and this month grocery store manager Ron Weeks (right, standing) stepped into the breach. Chairman Rumley explained that he had spoken with Weeks about serving out Ms. Crisp’s unfinished term, which runs until September, after which he would have to be reappointed if still willing. (Rumley also explained that the tax board is a toughie for even the most civic-minded citizen, with soporific concentrations of rules, regulations and above all numbers.)
The only difficulty is that Weeks doesn’t live in the proper district, District 2, or Sand Mountain. County Attorney Robin Rogers said this was not an insuperable barrier. But the commission in the end decided to table the appointment one more month so that the prospective vict—er, candidate—could be interviewed by Scottie Pittman, the District 1 commissioner.
(Photo: Ron Weeks may take Dora Crisp's place on the board of assessors--but can he hope to match her sartorial splendor? Ms. Crisp's flair for fashion has cheered many a weary BOA meeting throughout the years.)
In other business, the commission voted to amend its drug and alcohol testing policy for Dade Transit employees, attorney Rogers having explained that—as is often the case—some “very minor changes” were necessary to bring Dade’s policy into compliance with state or federal ones, a prudent conformity since the transit program is paid for with federal dollars. But Chairman Rumley and District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff grumbled that it was yet another unfunded mandate. “Of course they’re not offering any supplemental pay,” said Rumley. “It’s not ‘can you do it’ or ‘would you like to do it,’” said Goff.
Goff, incidentally, was reappointed at the Jan. 4 meeting as Dade’s Georgia “legislative coordinator,” a position he was quick to specify carried no additional remuneration, and in which capacity he will no doubt continue patrolling state legislation hawkishly for “UMs.”
The commission passed a resolution formalizing the accommodation, or hotel-motel, tax it had passed in 2017, County Clerk Don Townsend explaining that Dade had missed the Georgia “Crossover Day” deadline last year and had thus been too late to have the tax become law. “We’re going to get ahead of the game this year,” said Townsend.
Townsend also said, as he has at the last couple of commission meetings, that the embryonic joint county/city historic preservation committee, which was on tonight’s agenda, was still not ready for primetime. “We need to have maybe some meetings with the city and divvy up the responsibilities,” he said.
Another formality the commissioners addressed was setting qualifying fees for the county commission and board of education seats up for reelection this year. They kept these at $120 and $18, respectively, amounts which represent 3 percent of the offices’ base pay. Up for grabs in the November 2018 election are the Districts 1 and 2 seats of both bodies, now occupied by Mitchell Smith (1) and Scottie Pittman (2) on the commission and Cindy Shaw (1) and Jennifer Hartline (2) on the B of E.
The commission also okayed applying for up to an $800,000 tax anticipation line of credit if or when it become necessary this year to pay bills.
In his monthly address to the commission and public, District 1’s Mitchell Smith reminded everyone to check electrical cords and extension cords when dealing with this winter’s extreme cold. District 2’s Scottie Pittman didn’t have much to report, his committee assignment being the Four Fields athletic complex, and those being singularly unpopular in 17-degree weather (though Pittman halfheartedly suggested opening an ice skating rink there).
Allan Bradford of District 4 in his monthly State of the Dump address—the transfer station is Bradford’s committee assignment—said 6 million tons of garbage had been processed during 2017, and that Dade was lucky to have a clean and modern transfer station these days. He remembered when it didn’t, and garbage choked the county.
Now, he said new environmental laws forbid local governments to burn brush, with much the same effect. “You’re seeing more and more brush stacked up in different areas,” he said.
Robert Goff reported Georgia legislators would be deciding this session whether to give themselves an 80-percent pay raise and invited voters to call their representatives and see how they’d vote. Dade’s voice in the Georgia House is John Deffenbaugh (right) (423-400-8128).
Even before it was raised in the citizens’ participation part of the meeting—prop up those weary eyelids, Gentle Reader, we’re getting there—Goff preemptively tackled the contentious Lookout Creek dam and reservoir issue, admitting that the county road crew had bulldozed a new entrance into the $500,000 parcel Dade has optioned to buy off Sells Lane. This, he explained, was to allow access to officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Division and other agencies who must inspect the land before Dade can buy it.
Goff answered another question he said citizens were asking: No, even if the county does not manage to buy the Lookout Creek land, it will not get back its $50,000 earnest money. He said the proposed lake would be a recreational boon and tourism draw as well as a drinking water resource. “Water’s never going to be less important than it is now,” said Goff.
He hinted that buying the land was a matter of some urgency—“We are not the only person looking at that piece of property”—but that the expensive and complicated business of building of a dam and reservoir was “way down the road.”
Those were both themes county boss Rumley carried on in his own report. He also hinted Dade had competition for the Sells Lane parcel (subsequently identifying the other bidder as Tennessee American Water—see previous article) and said the dam and reservoir were so far in the future that “we may not even be here.”
Anyway, said Rumley: “You can’t please everybody.” He said the county historically caught flak when it shelled out the money to build anything, including the high school it put up a couple of decades on Highway 136 East. “Some people came unglued over that,” he said.
The Boss also took up the brush glut issue raised by Bradford: The county had found a vendor who stockpiled brush near Rome, Ga., and then used it in his business. “We’re working on it,” said Rumley.
He announced that the county will complete its long-awaited walking track in the Davis community when it begins its paving program in the spring, and that it hoped to bring home from a meeting in late January the longer-awaited solution to the county’s issue with the Georgia Safe Dams agency over the Lookout Lake dam.
(For the uninitiated, the existing Lookout Lake dam problem is an entirely separate issue from the proposed Lookout Creek dam, any similarity in names being purely incidental.)
(For the curious, here’s a link to a 2016 Planet article from one of the last times the county hoped for a final resolution to the problem: https://editor.wix.com/html/editor/web/renderer/edit/4e927eae-5fa1-4a72-bcc0-552a3c049824?metaSiteId=00d6d6d8-473f-4ee9-b3d1-1243674b55ca&editorSessionId=C0DA7633-0121-4D8E-A018-7D87C70F6270)
Marshana Sharp, manager of the Dade County Public Library, reminded all it’s not too late to enroll kids in the library’s after-school math club and that anyone interested in the library’s Computers 101 class on Jan. 30—there’s one session at 10 a.m. and another at 6 p.m.—should call the library (706-657-3857) to sign up. Cheryl Painter of the Dade Chamber of Commerce said The Vapory had won the chamber’s “City Lights” business Christmas decoration contest this year.
During the citizens’ participation part of the meeting—yes, Reader! We have finally arrived—Rumley and crew faced more questions about the Lookout Creek dam project from citizens Ron Weeks and Jon Talbott (right): Didn’t the county have a backup plan with Tennessee American Water in case of water supply problems? Yes, said Rumley, Dade might call in the neighboring utility should Lookout Creek be poisoned. What about the trouble the county was facing with the Lookout Lake dam; would it have the same kind of grief with a Lookout Creek dam? No, said Rumley: “It would be a modern, safe dam.”
Is Dade committed to pay the additional $450,000 for the Sells Lane land? Realistically, said Rumley, there would be a three-to-four year permitting process before the purchase could take place. Had Dade ever had a shortage of water? “This past drought put the scare into the Water Authority,” said Rumley. Is there a total estimated cost to the taxpayer? None emerged. Is Dade really going through with completing this project? It’s going through with buying the land, said Rumley.
“When we get all this together positively, we’ll have a meeting,” he promised. “We’ll lay it out.”
Next came irascible citizen John Huffman, who last month stood up to urge the commission to make itself available to its public online. This month, Huffman was pleased to announce the meeting was streaming live on Facebook for the benefit of those unable to attend but aching to observe. But wouldn’t it be beneficial, he asked, if the commission also had a webpage? That way, commissioners wouldn’t have to explain things over and over when constituents called.
“I like them to call me,” said Rumley. He said taxpayers came to see him in person, too. He had no interest in trying to establish an online presence and if that was a problem, “People can vote me out,” said the Boss, beginning to sound a tad testy.
Another concern Huffman expressed was the scheduling of citizens’ participation. Did it have to be on the very end of the meeting? Rumley explained citizens could schedule a slot in the preliminary workshop part of the meeting by calling the commission office ahead of time (706-657-4625). And if Huffman thought citizens had a hard time making their voices heard in the county commission, “Look at school board meetings,” invited Rumley.
Huffman’s final question was: What is there for kids to do in Dade County to make a family want to move here? The overwhelming consensus was: The Great Outdoors. Hiking, biking, camping, the sports complex—“You can go jump off a perfectly good mountain with wings if you want to,” pointed out Goff, referring to the delights on tap at Lookout Mountain Flight Park.
Dad had no paintball facilities, and the skating rink had closed down decades ago, agreed the commissioners, so that things might be a bit slow for a kid in the winter. A movie theater would be nice, they allowed, but what was the local government supposed to do about private-investor stuff like that? “We get raked over the coals because we have ball fields,” pointed out Goff.
The Dade County Commission meets at 6 p.m. the first Thursday of every month in the county Administrative Building. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend, to participate and above all to keep the ravening Press awake.