Thursday night's regular March meeting of the Dade County Commission was an endurance marathon for county officials, concerned citizens and the long-suffering local press as hours crept by and SPLOST (local option sale tax) dollars zoomed out the door.
Bladders, attention spans and presumably the county SPLOST budget were stretched to the max in what was probably the longest such meeting in the last 10 years. By the time it was all over, at about 9:40 p.m., there wasn't a chocolate chip cookie left on the refreshment platte--nor, probably, a crumb of hope for lower-priority SPLOST projects such as the animal shelter Dade has been discussing and not building for the past 30 or so years. Perhaps it was just as well for the animal welfare activists currently pressing the county to begin on a shelter that they had postponed their scheduled March presentation, and thus were spared the awkwardness of squeezing a turnip that was already getting a pretty thoroughly exsanguination.
Chief turnip phlebotomist at the March 7 meeting was Dade Emergency Services Director Alex Case, (shown at left in a file shot, asking for funds for an ambulance last November). Case, in his roles both as 911 boss for the county and mayor of Trenton, is frequently to be found behind the microphone petitioning for SPLOST funds for new technology, more technology, upgraded technology and technology replacement, repair and licensing; but Thursday night was the mother of all gadgetitis storms. Case held center stage for over an hour with page after page of big-ticket requests.
Case's list included: $23,300 for eight new Motorola radios; $65,715 for 39 computer work stations to be replaced throughout the county offices; $36,800 for 16 new laptops; server upgrades including $93,320 for hardware and $123,470 for software; $4597 for a new fire alarm panel; and 85,944 for Dade's third of a new signal tower in the Canyon Ridge area, the $257,832 cost of which is to be divvied up among Dade, Walker and Catoosa counties.
Case acknowledged he frequently has to ask for new tech, and had known six years ago when he asked for sweeping upgrades that he would have to ask again now. "It's just the nature of this stuff," he said. He explained that in many cases it was a matter of obsolescence--he was replacing Windows 7 operating systems that were no longer supported by Microsoft. County Clerk Don Townsend added in support that some of the county's computers were 17 years old. "We have no choice," he said. And as for the radio tower at Canyon Ridge, as it approached 10 years old it was at the end of its useful life, said Case.
Case got no argument from the commissioners. "We really don't have any choice," said Lamar Lowery of District 1. "It's what we have to do for public safety."
Lowery said he'd in fact asked Case to add five laptops for the commissioners "to stop this labor-intensive waste of paper," referring to the weighty information pack usually passed out at the meetings.
He and the other commissioners did not question the price of individual laptops or the other items--by The Planet's sketchy math, $1685 for each desktop computer, $2300 per laptop and 2012.15 a pop for radios--or why such items are priced for individuals in the hundreds of dollars and for governments in the thousands.
But Case followed another county trend, issuing dire warnings about the necessity of professional protection from cyber ransom attacks, citing examples of companies that had been forced to pay big money to get their records back.
Besides those Case-requested expenditures, the county commission also approved SPLOST outlays of $2299 to Kelly Weathers Roofing for a new roof for the old Four Fields bathroom building; $40,900 to J.D. Hilton to roof the North Dade Fire Department; and $4951 for the county's 10 percent match to a grant for new air packs for the North Dade FD. County roads boss Billy Massengale was okayed $60,331 for a new Bobcat road machine after he made the case it was needed for safety and efficiency and would allow his department to clip roads without closing them to traffic. With the new Bobcat: "We should be able to do twice as much with one less employee," said Massengale.
In all these cases, the commissioners groaned but accepted they had to pay what was asked of them; but in one of those periodic politicking excesses that keep the press from dozing off, the commissioners then decided to spend more than it had to to to make a point, bestowing one contract to the high rather than low bidder in an emotive show of support for local vendors. They chose Reeves Heating and Air's $11,845 bid for a new 911 air conditioning system over W.J. O'Neil's $9789, on the grounds that "Billy [Reeves] is a taxpayer and most of his people do live in Dade County," as County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley said.
The commission voted 4-1, with only Lowery dissenting. Lowery said he'd been pleased with the other contractor's work in his day job, pointed out that the local vendor was asking 20 percent more than the competition, and opined that the bidding process was a waste of time for everybody if contracts were to be awarded on grounds other than fair competition.
Garbage was another hot topic at the March 7 meeting. The commission heard from Monica Moseley of Republic Services, the vendor in charge of disposing of Dade's trash. Explaining that landfill fees went up each year and recycling markets were getting tighter, she asked for a maximum 4-percent-per-year fee increase for the next three years. "So it could increase 12 percent?" asked Rumley. The answer was yes, so that the per-ton garbage price will go up from $27.08 to $31.08 plus $1 tax, a 4.42 increase.
Rumley took the opportunity to point out that though he was frequently asked why Dade didn't landfill its own garbage, the county had found out from experience that even with price hikes like this: "This is the most feasible way Dade County can handle it."
Ms. Moseley also spoke on the recyclables market and how China's refusal to take most American materias has constricted it. "We as citizens need to reduce our consumption," she said.
This motif was echoed by citizen Jennifer Blair during the citizens' participation of the meeting. Ms. Blair gently chided the commissioners for drinking out of styrofoam cups. If they brought their reusable cups to commission meetings, she said, "You would be leading by example."
The commissioners agreed with her--landfills were filling up, they said; manufacturers should be encouraged to minimize packaging. As for what could be done locally, they urged her to consult with them and to formulate programs for the schools. "If you don't start, it won't happen," said Rumley.
The commission also passed resolutions adding to the county's personnel policy statements on non-retaliation, workplace violence and possession of firearms worked up by the county attorney to make Dade's policy comply with state guidelines. Here again was an opportunity for politicking: Even given the already epic length of the meeting, the commissioners were not fixin' to miss a chance to proclaim profound and sacred support for the right of county employees to bear arms, even painting a vivid picture of Dade's tax commissioner grimly defending herself with the pistol in her purse when sent for training to the killing fields of Macon.
Another resolution the commission approved was to authorize Clerk Townsend, the county's canny numbers man, to exercise its newly granted right to look at local companies' Georgia Department of Revenue sales tax reports "if we feel like there's something funny going on," as Townsend said. As SPLOST collections have varied wildly and inexplicably from month to month, not seemingly connected to the health of the economy or the price of commodities, the county has often wondered why and petitioned the Department of Revenue for information. Whether or not this new measure will shed any light on the subject, The Planet will relay as soon as Townsend reports.
The How Many Fields?
District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff brought up for discussion, not action, the idea of naming, or renaming, what Dade calls its "Four Fields" county park for the purpose of honoring a deserving denizen of Dade, unnamed though "I have a person in mind," said Goff.
Larry Moore, Dade's erstwhile and longtime sole commissioner, is credited with bringing athletics and community events, including the Christmas parade, to Dade; and though The Planet has no peephole into the interior of Commissioner Goff's inscrutable mind, most would agree Moore would be an appropriate honoree. And as to whether the Four Fields might need a new name, the park has grown over the years and District 2 Commissioner Phillip Hartline, in reporting on it during his committee report at the meeting, began: "All seven fields are open."
In other business, the commission appointed local newsman Evan Stone to fill the Industrial Development Authority seat left vacant by George Nelson, who moved out of the county.
Commissioner Hartline proposed a resolution to bring all county governing boards and authorities--the Trenton City Commission and Dade County Commission, Board of Education, Water Authority board and Industrial Development Authority--together for two meetings a year. The other commissioners agreed it would improve communication, though it was pointed out a bigger meeting room might be needed, perhaps the high school auditorium. Commissioner Goff said such a meeting might stretch the bodies' budgets, since each member is paid per meeting. Hartline said the boards might decide to send just one representative apiece rather than meet en masse. One way or the other, no such meetings have been scheduled so far.
Hartline also proposed formulating a reservation and rental policy for the Four Fields so that tournaments could be held there. He proposed charging a rental fee, say $700, to tournament organizers, who would then be responsible for running the event so that Dade need assume no liability for it. Robin Rogers, the county attorney, said he'd work with Hartline on such a policy, though he did not seem sanguine: "We've made several passes at this," he reminded.
Also on the agenda was an ordinance establishing Dade as a "Broadband Ready Community." Clerk Townsend later clarified this was a formality allowing the county to amend its 10-year strategic plan to declare it had taken steps for "broadband readiness," with the general view of showing itself ready, willing and able to receive any state or federal money that might come available for improving the county's broadband availability.
The recent relentless rains have been hard on county roads and road damage came up in several reports: District 4 Commissioner Allan Bradford bemoaned the chunk the flooding took out of Highway 136 East, which had so recently been resurfaced, and he said Newsome Gap and Sulphur Springs had also taken hits. Road crews are still busy, but if you have damage on your road, he said: "Just be patient. They will get to you."
County boss Rumley said County Road 6, or White Oak Gap, was dropping and sliding but: "Trust us; we're on it." He said Murphy Hollow Road had also had a slide and that the county was closely watching Burkhalter Gap. If there is a slide, said Rumley, it could be expected to be serious, and the road could be closed for some time.
Rumley also expressed concern about the private logging operations that have denuded broad swaths along Highway 136 East, which he said would be resuming in the spring. He stressed that the county has no legal way to stop the company from clear-cutting the scenic area though: "I'm hoping we can have enough influence on them that they'll just choice-cut."
Marshana Sharp, manager of the Dade County Public Library, reminded all of the library's big Read to Lead event, upcoming on March 23 at the library, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. At this popular yearly happening, Dade officials take turns reading to children, and there are also a variety of games and exhibits. Ms. Sharp also put in plugs for the yearly child-abuse-awareness Glow Run in
April--sign up soon if you want a free T-shirt, she urged--and a library computer class at 5:30 on March 26. This one will be about scams. "You would not believe the people who fall for them," she said.
Donna Street of the Dade Historical Society and Historic Preservation Committee reminded all that historic Dade 2019 calendars can still be had at the library for $10, and solicited volunteers for typing up old columns by late Dade journalist Myrna McMahan for a book the society hopes to have available for sale this Christmas.
Alison Henderson spoke for Dade 4-H, reminding parents it was time to sign kids up for 4-H summer camp.
Dade Transit Director Annette Cash urged elders to call her office about obtaining energy assistance funds that she said were going begging this year. "This money needs to be used and I know there's people out there that need it," she said.
The Dade County Commission meets at 6 p.m. the first Thursday of each month. The next regular meeting is scheduled for April 4.