Kucera speaks on Public Safety Director position

News, Police & Government

ELLIJAY, Ga. – A surprise even to him, he says, the Board of Commissioners officially announced Keith Kucera as the Public Safety Director of Gilmer County.

FYN caught up with Kucera to ask him how he felt about moving from his months as Interim into the full-term position.

He called it an honor to serve the citizens of the county in this position and looks forward to the coming months as he builds relations between the county and state and other local agencies. Kucera moves into the full term position alongside Daniel Kauffman as the Fire Chief of Gilmer.

Gilmer County Public Safety Director, Keith Kucera

Gilmer County Public Safety Director, Keith Kucera

Kucera retired from military after 25 years of active duty, where he served in the U.S.  Coast Guard, and moved to Ellijay where he says he never expected or looked to become a Director, yet when the opening came, he put forth his name and served in the interim. He lives here with his wife, Pamela.

It is a move that many firefighters seem happy with. As reported in “BOC names full time Public Safety Director and Fire Chief,” many members of emergency services showed up at the commissioners meeting to show support for the direction the BOC was taking in their departments, though they didn’t know Kucera was being named as Director, FYN has come to understand that  it had been internally announced before the meeting that Daniel Kauffman was taking the position of Fire Chief.

Kucera said the show of support “means the world” to him. Having the support of the men and women of the departments, and his family’s support as well, is “second to none. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and I look forward to many years to come.”

According to Kucera, their support and the support of the Fire Chief is what will allow him to open up more to the duties of a Public Safety Director and allow the fire department to focus on what they do with a chief who can focus on that as well.

This is something Gilmer Commission Chairman Charlie Paris has said before as he wanted to separate, at least, the fire chief position so as to not have one person pulled into too many directions and possibly detracting from the service offered to the department.

Kucera said, “The Public Safety Division is going to be able to branch out to the other agencies within the county and build more of a coalition-type group within the county to serve the public better as a whole.” Kucera went on to note that some other benefits could include a better chance at obtaining and retaining grants from the federal and state governments as well as combining into a consolidated public safety group in times of need.

Besides the day to day work, Kucera said one of his major projects to tackle as the Public Safety Director is building community relations. He stated, “I continue to pledge my service to the community, to the citizens, and I look forward to meeting every single person I possibly can.”

Throughout the entire time speaking with him, Kucera never mentioned how he wanted to lead the department or the type of leadership he wanted to show. Instead, numerous times, he repeated that he was anxious to continue “serving with” the firefighters and emergency response workers of the county.

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Chamber opens Downtown Welcome Center

Community, News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – Gilmer County is celebrating a five-year-long project completion today with the opening of the Downtown Welcome Center in Ellijay, Georgia.

From left to right, Chamber President Paige Green and Commission Chairman Charlie Paris listen as Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston speaks words of congratulations for Gilmer.

From left to right, Chamber President Paige Green and Commission Chairman Charlie Paris listen as Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston speaks words of congratulations for Gilmer.

A new branch for the Chamber and a “needed presence” downtown according to community leaders like Gilmer County Commission Chairman Charlie Paris and Gilmer Chamber President Paige Green, this new building will work across town from the Chamber home office and welcome center on Craig Street, just off of Highway 515 between the Waffle House and Advance Auto Parts.

Today’s celebration marks the completion of the preparations and renovations, according to Green, who said the day also serves as the beginning of the Chamber’s return to downtown. A “homecoming” of sorts as the Chamber has been in the Watkins House before, located on the downtown square next to the courthouse.

Green said it wasn’t only the Chamber’s efforts, but a collective involving the Chamber, the Board of Commissioners, and State Legislative involvement from Georgia Speaker of the House of Representatives David Ralston. This alliance’s dedication has pushed the project across the year’s to come to today’s fruition.

While that dedication has stretched five years since conversations first began about the Chamber re-opening the Watkins House as a Welcome Center, Green noted that the Board of Directors’ recent Chairman Trent Sanford and current Chairman John Marshall have made the major push through these last two years to begin and finish the actual renovations on the building.

Back left to right, John Marshall, David Ralston, and Trent Sanford. Front left to right, Dallas Miller, Karla Roper, Charlie Paris, Karleen Ferguson, and Paige Green.

Back left to right, John Marshall, David Ralston, and Trent Sanford. Front left to right, Dallas Miller, Karla Roper, Charlie Paris, Karleen Ferguson, and Paige Green.

As a part of the Chamber’s return to downtown, Green said publicly that the Chamber is planning more downtown events through their new center and extended hours. She stated, “We do intend to be open Wednesday through Saturday. We want to be a leader in hoping that our merchants will join with us in opening until six or seven o’clock to greet our guests on the weekends as well.”

Green went on to say that the Downtown Center will also be opened for meeting space needs, or for those visitors who simply need a place to sit and rest. She wants the Downtown Welcome Center to be open in this sense for both tourists and locals.

The celebration also saw visits from each of the Gilmer County Commissioners, Chairman Charlie Paris and Post Commissioners Dallas Miller and Karleen Ferguson, as well as Speaker Ralston. Paris offered his thanks to Ralston as well saying that without his help, the community might still be waiting for a downtown center.

Paris spoke about the many “dominoes” that needed to fall in order to accomplish what they have. From relocating the Planning and Zoning Office on the other side of the square to needing help from the Department of Transportation and Ralston for logistics. Paris praised the Chamber and community volunteers and merchants who were integral in making the Welcome Center look as amazing as it does now.

Ralston also offered a few words as he congratulated the county on the facility. He spoke about the history of the Watkins House and its journey through generations and his personal memories of hanging out at the courthouse and walking past the Watkins House everyday after school. Ralston went on to note the significance of the statement the Chamber is making to the citizens of Ellijay and the investment they are making in the community.

Brenda Davis, former Director of the Gilmer Chamber of Commerce, poses with her picture from the early 90's in front of the Welcome Center.

Brenda Davis, former Director of the Gilmer Chamber of Commerce, poses with her picture from the early 90’s in front of the Welcome Center.

However, the day held more meaning than most understood, as they sipped wine from local vineyards and snacked of food from local restaurants, one family shared a moment around a special picture as former Chamber Director Brenda Davis, the lady in the picture, returned to her former offices and joined the celebrations of the changes and growth the building has seen since her last days in it.

The photo, taken in the early 90’s according to Davis. She said it feels good to be back in the building as she pointed out the meetings she held in the large front room and secretary’s office in the room with her photo. She recalled how here entire family got recruited to “volunteer” for events and needs when she held the office and the Welcome Center was there. She chuckled as she pointed out she had an intern, at the time, named Sandy Ott. Now working for University of North Georgia and its expansion campus, Davis recalls her working for the Gilmer Chamber stuffing fliers and mailers for the Chamber.

Davis also recalled a special memory at the Watkins House as they prepared for the Olympics in Atlanta. Davis said it was two years prior and Gilmer was hosting visitors from all over the world. They had received one foreign visitor whose interpreter was not available. He sat on the square as C Lloyd Smith began speaking with him and trying to make him happy with his visit despite the lack of a translator. Davis recalls Smith trying so hard to make this visitor feel welcome despite the major hurdle of language.

Memories like this are built into the bricks of the Watkins House. It seems anyone who lived or worked in Ellijay at the time has some memory tied to the building. As the Chamber returns to its former home, employees, citizens, and even those who no longer live in the county, will return with them to revisit old times, old memories, and tie them together with a new gateway in our community and new visitors creating new memories.

Chairman of the Gilmer Chamber’s Board of Directors, John Marshall offered his thanks for the legacy and the generosity that the Watkins’ family showed years ago when they had donated the building for the public good. Marshall stated, “It is altogether fitting and appropriate that the formerly private residence of this pioneer and progressive family has been transformed into a place to welcome the public.”

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BOC names full time Public Safety Director and Fire Chief

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – “Solidarity” was the word used by one fireman who spoke at Thursday’s, March 14, Commissioners Meeting.

Keith Kucera, Public Safety Director of Gilmer County

Keith Kucera, Public Safety Director of Gilmer County

That show of solidarity included 15 members of public safety’s fire and ems divisions as the stood together to tell the BOC that they are happy with the direction and way the Public Safety Department is moving.

To take that one step further, Gilmer County Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlie Paris skipped ahead on his agenda to return the favor by officially announcing  Keith Kucera as the full-time Public Safety Director. Kucera has served as interim since February 12, 2019, and now begins his service as the full time Director, leaving the interim title behind.

Kucera also released information to FYN that an official announcement has also been made about the full-time Fire Chief. Kucera was proud to announce Daniel Kauffman will be taking the position as Kucera tells FYN he comes from Ocala, Florida.

Kucera said that Kauffman brings 30 years of fire service experience from Marion County in Florida as a District Chief and a Battalion Chief. He also has a Master’s Degree in Human Resources and a Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Science.

Despite recent issues in the Fire Department, Paris stated to those present that they had no idea how much their public display meant to the Board.

Further, those fire and ems staff present offered standing applause to the announcement of Kucera to the Director position during the meeting.

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Post Commissioner Raises pass First Reader

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – Reaching all the way back to October of 2018, the proposal of wage increases for Post Commissioners finally reached the stage of First Reader this month.

This topic has been hotly debated, and even now, the public hearing saw more debate over the issue that has spanned five months and the changing of the Post 2 Commissioner. After a community push, successfully, to keep the issue in county instead of sending the topic to Atlanta for a vote, the discussion now moves to the actual topic of accepting or denying the proposed Post Commissioner salary raise from 10% to 18% of the Chairman’s Salary.

With only a couple people standing in the Public Hearing to speak, discussion centered on justifying the raise. Post 2 Commissioner Karleen Ferguson was asked about this, and replied with some statistics about her hours saying she has put in 134 hours since taking office at the new year. She calculated the pay versus hours and reported that she has received close to $7.74 /hr ($1,036.82 total pay over 134 hours).

Additionally, Dallas Miller was asked about his hours comparatively, if he has more or less than Ferguson, being a new commissioner and attending training. Miller admitted that the hours don’t go down as he said more people know who you are and will stop you to talk, email you, or call you.

Miller stated again, as he has in previous meetings, that he did feel it would have been better at a different time, and he ultimately voted no on the First Reader citing the same issues he noted in the public meeting about timing.

It wasn’t until another citizen, Brian Pritchard, spoke about his issues with the change. Among his own questions for justification, he eventually asked the Board to push the vote back to year end for citizens and commissioners to look at the raise.

Gilmer County Commission Chairman Charlie Paris noted that pushing this back that far could create a perception of conflict with the Post 1 Commissioner position so close to qualifying and re-election in 2020. Paris said he did not believe that it was necessary, and the board could avoid the conflict altogether by not pushing the issue off to year-end.

Taking the issue now would be far separated from any decisions on running again according to Paris.

The first reader was officially approved with Karleen Ferguson giving the motion, Charlie Paris giving the second, and the final vote passing on 2-1.

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Venue size concerns revisit BOC

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – Gilmer is once again in issue with rezonings when considering items this month.

Considerations of wineries, tasting rooms, wedding venues, and lot sizes came to discussion in February’s Commissioner meeting.

The major contentions came when considering a conditional use permit for a “large” wedding venue. The item for A-1 Agricultural with Conditional use for 582 Cinnamon Lane created debate between Public Works Director Jim Smith, Planning and Zoning Director Karen Smith, and County Attorney David Clark as the board sought guidance and information about the issue.

The venue actually came as two items, the board unanimously approve the winery and tasting room in one vote, then discussed the conditional use for the large wedding venue at the same location.

Jim Smith warned the board to consider the county roads when allowing the possibility of more vehicles and traffic of a large venue.

Ultimately, it was Attorney David Clark who noted that the current item was a wedding and events venue as opposed to Large Recreational Venues which expected larger crowds.

Gilmer County Commission Chairman Charlie Paris noted concerns and calls he had gotten on the issue. He later said in the meeting that he wouldn’t support the larger numbers of over 200 people at the event. However, he indicated he didn’t want to restrict them to less than 100 either.

Smith later raised concerns about the public accessing the venue through Cinnamon Lane, preferring they instead use Old Flat Branch road.

Final approval for the wedding and events venue came with conditions including no more than 200 people, ingress and egress be through Old Flat Branch road, and that expenditures related to it, such a deceleration lanes, be the responsibility of the facility owners at the location.

All three board members voted to approve the conditional use permit.

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Pritchett resigns from Public Safety Director

News, Police & Government
Tony Pritchett

ELLIJAY, Ga. – Gilmer County Public Safety Director Tony Pritchett has tendered a resignation from his position as Public Safety Director.

Though his letter of resignation is tendered, it is notice of his resignation at March 15, 2019, meaning he will remain in the position until then to prepare and possibly train his replacement. He has served 16 years in Gilmer County, with 12 of those as Chief and Director. He was Fire Chief until 2015 when the position of Public Safety Director was created and he has served in since.

According to his resignation letter, Pritchett cited that he is pursuing other opportunities. Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlie Paris said that the County will begin advertising for the position in the next 10 days and will look both internally and externally for candidates.

Paris confirmed that he tendered his letter today, February 6, 2019. He also told FYN that he has appreciated Pritchett’s service over the years and has wished him well in his pursuits.

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Land Ordinance changes delayed

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – Despite being ready to go forward with the first reader of changes to the Land Ordinance in Gilmer County, Commissioners listened to a speaker in the Public Hearing who requested they push the ordinance back a month.

Devell Frady stood in Public Comments to ask for the extension as he said he hadn’t heard about it until two days before the public comments.

Agreeing to stall the decision, the board will be re-advertising the ordinance in the next month and holding a new public comments session as well. Having completely restarted the process, Frady said it will give the Builders Association and surveyors more time to read through the changes.

Frady thanked the Commissioners for listening to him and others as they asked for a change to R3 zonings. He also thanked them for listening again as they agreed to allow another 30 days for the public.

The changes will instate new R-4 zoning that all current R-3 could be moved into, and allowing a new R-3 Zoning.

The changes also deal with adding in capabilities for Duplexes and similar structures.

Make sure to see the changes and updates in the Land Use Ordinance before next month’s return to the issue.

The county has already advertised a new Public Hearing for February 14, 2019, at 5:00 p.m.

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Auto-Renewal will go forward with Chamber Contract

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – A not-unexpected turn of events saw the Board of Commissioners (BOC) strike the two items from their agenda on Thursday that involved an Audit and a Contract Termination for the Gilmer Chamber.

Despite this, it doesn’t mean the end of this issue between the two entities. With both sides having agreed that the Hotel/Motel Tax usage by the Chamber is required to have an audit, and moving forward imposing that requirement, a major issue is being resolved. However, it doesn’t mean that citizens won’t be hearing about the issue again in coming sessions.

As Post 2 Commissioner Karleen Ferguson stated in their work session, she is wanting to look deeper at the Chamber, the date of the automatic contract renewal, and the Hotel/Motel Tax split. Though most of the discussion at the work session centered on clarifying “if” and “why” a termination would be required to renegotiate the contract and look at some of the expectations from both parties, the lasting issue is still persisting.

Chamber President Paige Green provided a prepared statement on behalf of the Chamber which asked them to reconsider the termination. But much of its points also addressed the issue of changing the split. One sentence stated, “Defunded or reduced funding towards those efforts or even extended negotiation period without resolution will have immediate and long term effects on the great work that has been done to bring us to this point in time.”

Her statement also reaffirms the Chambers commitment to “an open dialogue this year and to answer any questions you have in regards to our efforts.”

The commissioners did not vote down the termination, however. As previously reported in “Chamber Contract in question at BOC,” Ferguson stated several times during the work session that she thought termination was the only way to renegotiate the contract with its pending automatic renewal. Instead of voting down the termination, all three commissioners unanimously approved an agenda change to remove the items from the agenda with the clarification that it was agreed that the audit was required and would start being provided.

This leaves the state of the Gilmer Chamber in a flux of moving forward with an automatic renewal schedule to take effect next week, but knowing that 2019 will be a year in review as the Commissioners look closer at the Hotel/Motel Tax and the Chamber in general.

Ferguson noted during the work session that the Gilmer Chamber holds one of the highest Hotel/Motel tax split-percentages in the state. It was also noted by several chamber members and chamber board members that the Gilmer Chamber was also noted by people across the state as one of the best and most effective chambers.

As both entities move forward in the year, the discussion of the underlying issue will arise. For now, the preamble comes to a close avoiding what Commission Chairman Charlie Paris said would have been “a very, very serious mistake for Gilmer County.”

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