The long-planned, long-demanded mega-meeting between basically all the governing bodies in Dade County took place last Thursday, Sept. 26, and the one big shocker was that the public snubbed it almost completely. The audience minus press, PR and three candidates for local office was: two.
After nearly three hours of meet-and-greet with no cocktails, no little triangular sandwiches with olives attached by toothpicks, not even a plate of dried-out, one-chocolate-chip-per-acre grocery-store cookies, it became abundantly evident the public had called it right: Intergovernmental communication is a noble objective but not much of a spectator sport. Content was, in a word, general.
One of the functions of newspapers is to point out the obvious. Many of the participants at the Sept. 26 gathering seemed determined to get in there first. There was no formal agenda and much of the discourse was attendees explaining who they were and what their governmental body did. William Back of the Dade Industrial Development Authority (IDA) had gone so far as to prepare a handout, which began; “IDA has six members…”
Participants also seemed to operate under the assumption that other participants did not for that matter even read local newspapers about the doings of other branches of local government. IDA is not in fact much in the news—The Planet is the only media outlet that covers IDA meetings, and during the year of Back’s leadership almost nothing has happened at them—but H.A. McKaig of the Dade Water Authority board of directors reported on the doings of the water board that really have made local headlines: “In July our longtime manager retired…”
McKaig also reported on the water board’s actions in fixing a problem in West Brow—a hydrant that had sat useless for years for lack of water to supply it—half a million dollars’ worth of improvements the new manager found necessary and the pending sale of a sewer in Walker County the water authority had never meant to own in the first place, and which McKaig said had been losing Dade about $50,000 a year. The water board has announced a special called meeting on that matter next Monday, Oct. 7.
Candidates for local office like to show their faces at local meetings, and that's just as well because at this one they comprised more than half the audience--3 to 2. They are (foreground, left) Cody Doyle, who is running against Lucretia Houts (foreground, right) for Trenton fire/utility commissioner in the city's November election. Next to Ms. Houts is Nathan Wooten, who has announced his candidacy for county executive in the 2020 election. Also visible is County Clerk Don Townsend.
Schools Superintendent Jan Harris used the meeting as another platform for her good-news messages about the system’s accomplishments. As she told the assembled officials, “We didn’t want to deprive you of the opportunity to brag on our students.”
Trenton Police Commissioner Kirk Forshee said the city was down two cops and was considering buying a tag reader, a high-tech device that would read license plates and determine if they were expired or associated with outstanding warrants. Dade’s gadgetmeister Alex Case, the county’s EMS director and incidentally the mayor of Trenton, took over here and explained how the new tech would be financed with SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax).
In his own report, Case talked about needed improvements to the city sewer--and a coming 30-percent rate hikes to pay for them. A point of interest here was that even among the assembled movers and shakers of the center of the universe the mayor could not resist mentioning the ravages that Wet Wipes have visited on Trenton’s wastewater treatment operations. Apparently an afternoon spent personally disentangling them from the city’s works etched an indelible niche in the mayoral memory.
Streets Commissioner Monda Wooten talked about potholes. “These trucks are just tearing our little town apart,” she said.
Tractor-trailer truck traffic through the county was one subject that excited a little intergovernmental discussion, if no real plan for action. County Commissioner Phillip Hartline asked if there were plans to expand elsewhere to get the big rigs out of Trenton’s quirky central intersection. IDA’s William Back wished for a traffic light at the intersection of highways 299 and 11. But both of those intersections lie outside the purlieu of local authorities and within that of the Georgia Department of Transportation. “They know that is a problem,” said Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley.
Another point that emerged from the intergovernmental comingling was confusion, suspicion and bewilderment about the roles of Dade’s quasi-governmental bodies: What does Dade get from belonging to the Georgia Joint Development Authority? asked school board member Daniel Case. Membership costs Dade money, he said, but most of the industry JDA pulls in seems to go to Walker or Catoosa.
Local newsman Evan Stone, attending in his role as a member of IDA, answered for JDA, on the board of which he also sits: A $500 jobs tax credit for employers is what Dade gets, he said. He also said Dade does, anyway, pay less than the other counties to JDA because membership is prorated for size?
Jennifer Hartline of the school board asked about IDA: What happens to the companies IDA pulls in with tax breaks when they don’t meet their quotas for hiring or investing in Dade? Does Dade get the money back? Yes, said Peter Cervelli of the IDA; there’s a formula for clawbacks at both the state and local levels. “At some point, they will start paying tax, and they’ll be a substantial taxpayer,” said Evan Stone, referring to the companies IDA draws in.
William Back clarified that Vanguard (the one big company that IDA has brought to Dade recently) will start paying taxes in the 11th year, which means six years from now. Monda Wooten sang the praises of IDA, JDA and State Sen. Jeff Mullis, who she said had his name written all over all the money that comes to Dade.
But Dade County Attorney Robin Rogers interjected that as far as whether the incentive money would come back in case of target companies not performing as billed, that would depend on the agreement with each, and from the general tenor of his comments and the probable content of his mumbled asides, the answer sounded mostly like: probably not.
[Asked later if he had anything to add to the joint meeting on his own account, Rogers commented: “I really have nothing to say”—another of the evening’s astonishments.] [Not. The county commission’s legal advisor, who also acts for the IDA and water board, makes roughly the same comment at every meeting of each body, though in point of fact at commission meetings it is uniformly: “I do not.”]
But back to the mega meeting: On the subject of the role of the IDA, William Back said that for years the mission of IDA had been to bring jobs to the county. “Now we’ve got lots of jobs and not enough people to fill them,” he said. IDA tries to focus now more on quality of life and better-paying jobs, he said. “We want clean industry,” he said, which seemed to tie into the subject of Dade’s proposed land-use ordinance, to be discussed at a public hearing two nights hence.
Asked by Phillip Hartline about the recruiting process, Back said, “It’s like going to
Hollywood and auditioning for a movie.”
“It’s mostly miss as opposed to hit,” said IDA board member Peter Cervelli of the process.
As far as specifically why companies didn’t come, one answer Back said he’d gotten was that Dade didn’t have enough flatland. As far as specifically why Vanguard had come, County Executive Ted Rumley said it was because the other contender, Floyd County, had decided it didn’t want the plant when it found out what the pay scale was.
Before we leave the subject of movie auditions, Evan Stone said he’d met with a local mogul about getting Dade sites listed a potential sets for the silver screen.
And before we leave the matter of the JDA and IDA, here are some financial statistics from the county’s fiscal year 2020, or current, budget: Dade pays an annual total of $126,500 for economic development, $65,000 of which goes toward William Back’s salary and benefits, part of which the city of Trenton contributes. Dade’s canny numbers man, County Clerk Don Townsend, was unavailable to help The Planet with the fine points of Dade’s JDA membership, but $43,900 of the Ec. Dev. budget was listed for “dues and fees.”
And finally, on the subject of government/private/community organizations, another question at the Sept. 26 meeting,asked in various phrasings, was: What on earth has happened to the Dade Chamber of Commerce?
“They’re the liaison between government and private business,” said Evan Stone. “The folks outside Dade County expect the chamber to be there.”
But the chamber has not been there much of late. It no longer sends a representative to city or county meetings, it did not stage its yearly banquet this spring, and the county stopped funding it years ago when it began funding a full-time IDA director. Trenton funds it with its hotel/motel tax, but: “This month I held that until we get some answers,” said Mayor Alex Case.
The city commission, particularly Streets Commissioner Wooten, had called the C of C into question when for months on end it couldn’t hold a meeting for lack of a quorum. She questioned it again tonight with reference to the way it hired and fired directors. “They’ve got all these bosses and they can’t please them all,” she said. “I think that the structure of the chamber has got to be bad.”
If the chamber is to be revived, she said, Dade should “look at a place similar to us in size and population that has a successful chamber.”
IDA's Cervelli said membership was the heart of the chamber, and businesses should be enticed into joining. “If that doesn’t happen, there’s not going to be a chamber,” he said.
But William Back said, in answer to a question of how a business would go about setting up shop in Dade:
“I’m a second-tier version of the Chamber of Commerce.”
IDA would walk companies through the process of settling in Dade, said Back.
The group discussed fledgling attempts of the C of C to remake itself, on which The Planet will report more in a later article.
For now, The Planet will end by announcing the date for the next mega-meeting—March 26—and by listing those who attended for the various governmental bodies.
For the Dade County Commission appeared Commissioners Ted Rumley, Lamar Lowery, Phillip Hartline, Robert Goff and Allan Bradfords—that’s everybody, folks.
For the Trenton City Commission came Mayor Alex Case and Commissioner Kirk Forshee, Monda Wooten and Terry Powell.
For IDA came ED William Back and board members Peter Cervelli and Evan Stone.
The Dade Board of Education was fully represented by Superintendent Harris and
board members General Bob Woods, Jennifer Hartline, Carolyn Bradford (chair), Daniel Case and Johnny Warren.
And the water board was represented solely but vociferously by board member H.A. McKaig.