County Commission Writes Some Scary Checks Just as Budget Drama Begins

Dade County Executive Chairman (left) reads a string of whereases and therefores in honor of Peter Cervelli's retirement. There was also a cake.

With Dade’s yearly budget drama beginning this week—the county’s first budget hearing is this Thursday, June 14—the Dade County Commission at its regular monthly meeting last week signed unhappily off on some gulpingly big-ticket items.

First, here are the SPLOST—special purpose local option sales tax—expenditures the commissioners OKed.

After hearing a presentation from Stacy Stephens, the county employee responsible for overseeing the county park and athletic complex, the commission approved $58,785 to Lawson Electric in Chattanooga for wiring for new lighting at the Four Fields. This was in addition to $4,295 to Tri-State Electrical for a new electric panel.

The 58,7 was for wiring alone. District 3 Commissioner spoke direly of the final cost of the lighting project, once referring to it as “over $300,000” and once as $400,000. But again, at the June 7 meeting the only funds approved were the $4- and $58K.

Which is not to say those were the only SPLOST expenditures approved for the Four Fields. Next, Stephens was joined at the workshop table by Alex Case, Dade’s emergency services and communications director as well, incidentally, as the mayor of Trenton, who always seems to be in evidence when the subject of new and improved gadgetry arises. What he and Stephens requested, and what the commission forthwith granted, was another $17,342 for a Wi-Fi security camera system for the park.

(Photo: From left, Alex Case, Stacey Stephens, Robert Goff and Robin Rogers)

“In the past year, we’ve had a lot of vandalism,” explained Stephens.

Goff commented on this expense, too, referencing accusations that the commission spends SPLOST money but doesn’t finish promised SPLOST projects. “This is another $17,000 that no one is going to see,” he said. But he said the system would be there to protect the county’s investment in the park.

Besides Stephens’ mention of “a lot of vandalism” at the park, the only other reference to the need for a new security system was by Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley about new basketball baskets. “We put the basketball rims up and they lasted about two weeks,” he said. Alex Case explained he couldn’t bid the project out because it was designed by the same vendor who did all the rest of the county’s community and security work.

Next was $11,022 to upgrade computer hardware for the Dade Tax Commissioner’s office. Angie Galloway of the tax office appeared before the commission to explain that the purchase had been required by the Georgia Department of Revenue, which was in fact paying for part of the upgrade. “We don’t have a choice,” said Rumley. “That’s what’s aggravating about some of the state’s mandates.”

Finally, the commission agreed to pay $21,326 to Discount Flooring to redo the floors in the DFACS (Department of Family and Children Services) office in the basement floor of the Administrative Building. DFACS rents the office space from the county. Discount Flooring, a local business, had bid dramatically less—over $15,000—than the other interested contractor.

All these purchases are to be paid for from the penny sales tax the county collects on purchases on most retail transactions in the county. SPLOST money may only be used for capital purchases such as these, as opposed to salaries and other regular operating expenses. But it was in salaries and benefits that the county approved the biggest chunk of money at the June 7 meeting, through an intergovernmental agreement with the Dade Board of Education to share the cost of SROs—school resource officers—to the county schools.

The IGA spells out the terms: The Dade Commission will pay half the salaries and benefits of SROs at Dade Middle, Davis Elementary and Dade High schools, the other half falling to the B of E. Dade is already paying for the SRO currently in place at Dade Elementary and will continue to do so.

But the IGA made no mention of how much the SRO initiative will cost, and Mary Bailey, human resources director for the county, said on Monday she could not estimate, either, until she knows which officers the Dade Sheriff’s Office will send to the schools. The only inkling of a price tag came from Dade’s beleaguered numbers man, County Clerk Don Townsend. “I just want to make it clear that that will have a real impact on the general fund budget,” said Townsend.

The B of E is having a preliminary meeting on its fiscal year 2019 budget today at 5 p.m. at its office off Highway 136 East. The county will present its own 2019 numbers at a 5 p.m. hearing on Thursday in the Administrative Building.

Clerk Townsend said the budget as it stands was at $9,708,960. “We’ve got to do some cutting,” said Rumley. Townsend said part of the problem was that health insurance had gone up 30 percent. Rumley said that should improve now that certain high-claim employees have retired.

It was predicted by Townsend and also—though more reluctantly—by Dade Chief Appraiser Paula Duvall, who addressed the commission about valuation changes (see previous article), that this year’s digest would show some growth. That would signify that it would bring in minimally more tax revenue without increasing the millage rate.

In other business, the commission with cake, speeches and a whereas-heavy resolution bid fond adieux to Peter Cervelli, who is resigning this month as IDA (Industrial Development Authority) director. Previously, Cervelli (whose name The Planet for the final time reminds its readers means “brains” in Italian) did similar economic development work for the city of Trenton, and he also served one term as elected District 4 county commissioner. All in all, said Cervelli, he’d spent 25 percent of his working life here. “Does that make me from here yet?” asked the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Cervelli.

Doesn’t work like that, Brains, privately opined a local journalist sitting quietly taking notes, who at 28 years’ residence is still broadly considered from another, ahem, planet. But District 3 Commissioner Goff was more generous. “I’d like to make a motion that we give him honorary From Here status,” said Goff.

Cervelli’s anointed successor, William Back, whose antecedents remain unclear but who is also from Parts Unknown, spoke later in the meeting, reporting vaguely on IDA’s talks with “two more people who are interested in relocating to Dade and bringing some jobs here.”

The commission reappointed Dottie Abercrombie to the local library board of directors, Tinena Bice to the DFACS board; Tim Easter to finish Lamar Lowery’s unexpired term on the Dade Board of Tax Assessors—Lowery won the Republican primary for the District 1 county commission seat—and Rex Blevins, Sarah Moore and Donna Street to the joint county/city historic preservation committee.

As detailed in a Planet article last week, the commission did initial readings of ordinances on amendments to the International Plumbing Code, public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. As was explained again, the purpose of the plumbing

ordinance was to bring Dade’s plumbing code into compliance with state, national and international standards; and the purpose of the drunk-and-disorderly ordinances was to move jurisdiction for those offenses from Dade Superior to Dade Magistrate Court. “It just kind of ties up Superior Court,” explained Magistrate Joel McCormick, who was present.

During his monthly report to the commission and the public, District 1 Commissioner Mitchell Smith addressed questions from residents who want private roads paved—come read the rules about bringing roads up to a condition to be taken over by the county, he said.

District 2’s Scottie Pittman said the Four Fields are hopping, with soccer camp coming up in July as well as a district tournament for 12-year-olds. Bleachers have just been pressure-washed, he said, there are 40 acres maintained and mowed now, and with the lighting upgrade coming the fields should soon enter a whole new phase of importance to the county. “And if people want to talk bad about us…I guess that’s par for the course,” he said.

“That’s probably the most used place in the county," said District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff.

Goff reported that SPLOST collections, though up to $163,000 last month from much lower takes in recent months, were down from the $216K the commission remembered from better times. “That’s why the lights at the ball fields were pushed back,” he said.

In his monthly “State of the Dump” address, District 4’ Allan Bradford reported that 670 tons of garbage had been processed last month but: “It looks like a national cemetery park, it’s so clean.”

He reminded all of the American Legion dinner this Saturday--that's June 16 at 5 p.m. Dinner costs $10 and goes to help the vets of Post 106 pay off their meeting hall. “If everything goes well, we’ll have that thing paid off by July 4,” said Bradford. He said if so, the vets would stage a mortgage burning to celebrate their own Independence Day.

County boss Rumley in his own address reported that the breached dam on the old Preserve subdivision in Rising Fawn that caused the county so much consternation last month will be done away with and its lake drained. Rumley explained that the dam and several more at the Preserve had been constructed without permits over the decades and that the Georgia Safe Dams division had not known they existed. They are on private land and the expense of fixing them was incurred by the property owners association and the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust.

Alex Case, speaking in his capacity as the mayor of Trenton, reminded all that the city commission meeting is today at 6 p.m. Marshana Sharp, Dade Public Library manager, said free school lunches for children will be distributed from the library this month from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis was scheduled to attend but did not. “You can tell he hasn’t got anybody running against him this year,” observed Rumley.

In citizens’ participation, John Huffman challenged Boss Rumley with a series of questions about communication, roads, the proposed reservoir off Lookout Creek and TSPLOST, the transportation SPLOST that recently failed two public referenda, one in November and the next in May.

Rumley brushed off the communication criticism—Huffman suggested that the county publish an information page online on each county project, as it had done with TSPLOST—with his often-repeated policy of being available to anybody at more or less any time. “I don’t have any complaints,” he said. “We’re fine like it is.”

Mitchell Smith tackled Huffman’s problem with how the county handles its LMIG (local maintenance and improvement grant) road money, explaining that Dade asks for more roads to be paved than the state will pay for, and resubmits the same roads next year if they didn’t make it to this year’s list. “We can only spend what the state gives us,” he said.

Robert Goff (left) tells John Huffman to call the law if he wants to accuse the commission of high crimes and misdemeanors.

Allan Bradford said the county would need another employee to publish all the information that Huffman requested. And Robert Goff bit Huffman’s head off entirely, saying he was sick of insinuations online that the commission was “laundering money.” “Call the GBI,” he told Huffman, “because you just accused us of a high crime.” Huffman maintained later he had made no such remarks online.

And on the subject of TSPLOST, said Goff, it was over. “Quit beating a dead horse,” he told Huffman.

Also on the subject of TSPLOST, from the fraught Huffman v. Dade County Board of Commissioners interchange did emerge one interesting datum from Boss Rumley: the TSPLOST question will apparently reemerge during the next presidential election. That’s 2020, giving Dade a scant couple of years to breathe free before the shouting starts anew.

Former Trenton United Methodist minister Reese Fauscett emerged from retirement long enough to remind the commission that the Dade Public Library depends on the city, county and board of education for local funding and that it provides spectacular services in return. “It used to be that we were fighting to keep the doors open,” said Fauscett. “Thank you for helping us hang on.”

And citizen Carey Anderson also stood up to tell the commission how much her children depended on the place. “This library is one of the best,” she said.

The Dade County Commission meets at 6 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month.

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