Planning to make a plan in the BOC

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – The Gilmer County Board of Commissioners is taking steps to make changes to how it deals with something that has been called “useless” and “a document you approve then throw in a desk.”

While the Commissioner meeting spent a large amount of time on citizen’s concerns over Rainbow Lake, the Commissioner also spent a large portion of time discussing their future with the county’s Joint Comprehensive Plan.

The annual update to the Community Work Program and Capital Improvements Element within the Joint Comprehensive Plan Document was how the agenda item was worded, yet it grew into much more with input from both Post Commissioners Travis Crouch and Dallas Miller.

With a joint meeting to be set for input from the community involving the cities of Ellijay and East Ellijay, Crouch suggested there are far more entities that need to be involved in the process as a whole and in that meeting.

Miller noted in the Regular Session that he was disappointed that there is no resolution needed on the plan. Attempting to make a point, he clarified that as a strategic planning document, it doesn’t address the counties highest priorities, its infrastructure, or anything about revenue or funding for these projects.

Miller went on to say that there are many things about the document that needs to be changed to become more useful to the county instead of something the board does to maintain its qualified status for grants and government funding sources. He also noted that the document does not commit the county to anything listed on it.

Counterpointing Miller’s discussion, County Commission Chairman Charlie Paris stated that he thought the fact that the document held no legal commitment was a good thing as it isolated the regional commission from the county in that aspect. However, he did note that the county does commit itself to projects on its own and nothing would stop the county from doing those things.

Crouch also commented further saying the document was so frustrating to him as it is wasted potential as the county is, in fact, is addressing the issue last minute. Instead of just saying “here it is,” he wants more involvement and more usage of the document.

While the Joint Comprehensive Plan is not useless, as it is required for certified status and helps in grant pursuit, the feeling from both Post Commissioners indicated they wanted more. A feeling that has been voiced numerous times over past years.

Though the county still needs to move forward on this item now, Paris suggested an alternative to waiting until next year to address concerns saying, “We have to do this document and we’ll do it and we’ll get it out of the way. But there is not a thing in the world that stops us from creating our own document that does everything that you said, Travis. We can have our own plan, and it will undoubtedly include an awful lot of whats on [the Joint Comprehensive Plan] and some things that, perhaps, are not. That can be our plan and we can commit to it, and we can do whatever we want to with it.”

Attempting to include all the stakeholders while addressing the concerns of usefulness and commitment from the board, the document could be used to create the necessary document for the Joint Comprehensive Plan.

With both Post Commissioners indicating an interest in the concept, Paris suggested they take the next few months to begin the process to create the county’s own “plan.” While no direct action was taken, all three commissioners seemed agreed to pursue the plan.

Also taking time from the Commissioners’ meeting was a rezoning request asking to change a property on Laurel Hill Lane from R-1 Residential to A-1 Agricultural. The applicant, Jason Rice, and his lawyer, Jeb Chatham, indicated at the meeting his intention to construct an outbuilding and hosting of animals on the property. Paris questioned if he was aware of last year’s changes to hobby livestock in Residential areas of the county.

Rice said it was more about the freedom and flexibility of an Agricultural Zoning. He wanted to have more freedom to do what he wanted without worrying about the rules and restrictions of R-1. He stated he didn’t fully have it figured out, but what he wanted was the flexibility to do more.

Ultimately, the zoning failed to gain a motion from the board and was then was denied 3-0 with Paris reasserting his statements from previous meetings to protect landowners who researched and did their due diligence to find a residential area and expect it not to change. It was noted in their work session that while the Planning and Zoning board recommended approval, there was opposition and a letter sent to the Chairman in opposition to the zoning changes.

Their meeting continued on as the commissioners appointed Ron Cheslocke to the Keep Gilmer Beautiful Committee.

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Timber Cuts into Commissioner’s meeting

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – The Gilmer County Board of Commissioners August meeting saw an unexpected addition to its agenda as citizens from the Rainbow Lake area met to ask the board to stop the clear cutting of over 500 acres of Timber in the area.

“Devastation,” the word kept arising as citizen after citizen walked to the podium asking the Commissioners to stop the process, or somehow change it to selective cutting.

It is the word that Diane Davenport used when she said she lived downstream of the area. She told the board, “It’s going to devastate us for as long as I live, and as long as my family who inherit my land live.”

Joe Paprocki offered a structured argument against the clear-cut saying there are four main areas majorly affected in the county by this process.

The first area is the water, “We think the soil erosion and silt run-off will critically impact not only Rainbow Lake itself, but James Creek, Mountaintown Creek, and even Carter’s Lake. It will also impact our groundwater and well water.”

The second area is the wildlife, “We believe a clear-cut of this magnitude will be, pretty much, a 100% obliteration of habitat which will vastly diminish animal populations… for many years to come.”

The third area is the countywide quality of life, “We believe people come to Gilmer County to enjoy its forests, lake, creeks, fresh air, and natural beauty. We believe deforestation on this scale will force people like us to reconsider where we are living, if we want to be surrounded and hemmed in by this devastation.”

The fourth area is the property values, “I think we will almost immediately see property values plummet… That means tax revenues are going to go down with it, and county services will go down. Jobs will probably be lost.”

Paprocki said that he has heard people say its private property and there is nothing they can do, but that “800 acres” of devastation, an area large enough to land a 747 commercial airplane, affects the public and is, therefore, a public issue.

One citizen called the area a “war-zone” affecting the lives of the animals she keeps on a farm in the area, another referred to the endangered species in the area as well as the threat of invasive species cropping up after the clear-cut.

As if punctuating the emotion of the community, Alvin Sisson stepped to the podium. Speaking slowly and holding back tears, he choked out his words in short parts. “I was born and raised in Gilmer County, in this area. I have worked the whole project when they built Rainbow Lake. I worked Rainbow Lake from cutting the brush to building the dam itself.”

Noting the three major creeks that feed into Rainbow Lake, Sisson said the creeks would go red with mud before they feed that into the lake as a whole. He noted 500-foot buffers would not stop the devastation, they would not hold back the destruction of the area.

Everyone who spoke either opposed the clear-cut or asked to change to selective cut except one.

Richie Mullins of the Georgia Forestry Commission offered what basically became a crash course in the Commission’s water and forest quality assurance. Walking those present through the logging process and his part, as a Water Quality Specialist, in continuing to maintain the creeks’ and lake’s clarity in the process of and the aftermath of the project.

Calling himself the “Erosion Police,” Mullins assured citizens that he was the area’s biggest advocate for maintaining the lake and the water. Even he never fully said the clear-cut was a good thing, instead trying to assure citizens that he would monitor the project and address their concerns.

Even he himself told a resident that he would prefer a selective cut.

The situation was summed up in one short sentence by Commission Chairman Charlie Paris as he said, “I’d stop it if I could, but I can’t.”

He went on to explain that while he wholeheartedly agreed with citizens about avoiding the clear-cut at all costs, he could not find any legal ways to force the issue. Pausing a moment, he said that if anyone had a legal argument he wanted it so that he could use it. As he stated, in the end, it is their land and they can do it as long as they follow the rules.

“I hate that,” said Paris, “and I know not as much as ya’ll do, but I do hate that.”

Despite the disappointing response, one citizen stood to say, “We just appreciate being heard so that other people  know about what is going on because, frankly, it blindsided me.”

As it stands with citizens continuing to look for answers to the project, it seems that they will be keeping a close eye on the logging operation alongside the Forestry Commission to maintain the area after the project completes.

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BOC Sets Millage

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – The Gilmer County Board of Commissioners held their Special Called Meeting in which discussion of the county’s Millage Rate and decisions were made.

Considered their calculations of accepting the Rollback Rate at 6.370, the generalized budget for the county would wind up relatively the same, with only a possible $10,000 difference over what they collected this year.

With the continued growth in Gilmer County, Post Commissioner Dallas Miller noted it was one of the bigger rollbacks he has seen. He also noted the Rollback Rate represented over $800,000 dollars in budget difference to the county.

The county has not increased or decreased its Millage Rate in several years, maintaining 6.983 in since 2015.

Miller suggested to the board that he believed they should continue maintaining the current millage rate. Repeating their same argument against the state directive of Rollback Rate and what is called a tax increase, the board as a whole agreed upon the unfairness of calling it a tax increase when they maintain the same rate.

Gilmer County Post Commissioner Travis Crouch commented on the rate saying they could “split the difference” and lower the rate slightly without going all the way to the Rollback. He went on to note that last year, the commissioners had to cut $2.5 million from the county’s initial proposed budget.

Crouch took a moment to ask Commission Chairman Charlie Paris how he felt this year’s budget would compare.

Paris responded by saying, “That we will probably have to cut a bit more. That’s been the trend.”

Agreeing with Paris, Crouch noted he held similar expectations. The board heard similar arguments from department heads including Public Works Director Jim Smith who noted the increasing costs in gravel and stone. Paris agreed, noting increases to diesel, gas, and salaries as well.

The opposing discussion came from Paris as he said he believes the biggest issue he gets calls on in the county is roads. However, looking at the choice between the services and taxes, he said he felt the citizens would be more dissatisfied with what is called a “tax increase.” He admitted that he was mixed emotions on the topic, but confessed he would come down on accepting the rollback.

Ultimately, as discussion began circling to repetition, a motion came from Dallas Miller to maintain the 6.983 millage rate. Crouch seconded the motion leading to a 2-1 vote with Charlie Paris as the dissenting vote.

The bond millage vote also approved maintaining the current rate with a unanimous 3-0 vote.

Moving forward on this decision, the board will begin advertising the rate before the formal public hearings on the millage rate, and then on to the final adoption.

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BOC discusses new school zoning for BOE

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – During their June meeting, the Gilmer Board of Commissioners saw an item requesting a rezoning to PI-1 for the Gilmer County Board of Education.

This item is a part of planning and preparations for a new school to be built on the school’s Clear Creek property next to Clear Creek Middle School (CCMS). The school is set to replace the current Ellijay Primary School (EPS) as part of a plan to reorganize the school system.

This item is far ahead of any concrete plans on construction as the BOE is awaiting approval of a new ESPLOST referendum before they could move forward with this construction project.

During their work session, the Board of Commissioners discussed the item. With all three in favor of the school, the only discussion came from understanding what impact the project would have on the counties surrounding infrastructure. Post Commissioner Dallas Miller asked what changes would need to be done to the roads like Clear Creek Road and Yukon Road. Miller inquired if they would need deceleration lanes or traffic lights. While no solid answer is available at this time due to the project not even being out of idea stages without ESPLOST money to support it, there did become an understanding between the two entities for continued communication.

With CCMS already at the location, there may not be much, if any, change in school vehicle traffic like buses on the road, however, effectively “moving” EPS to the new location would obviously increase traffic on Yukon Road and Clear Creek Road from staff and parents.

While the BOC did approve the rezoning request, Miller’s comments at the work session made it apparent that they will be looking for constant communication on the project so that they may prepare the streets accordingly. Gilmer Schools Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs and two members of the Board of Education, Chairman Michael Bramlett and Vice Chair Ronald Watkins, were on hand during the BOC Regular Meeting to speak with the Commissioners before the meeting.

FYN’s current understanding of the project is that discussion is still going on how to maintain the communication. There is no information yet on if this would take the form of a report during commissioner’s meetings, a liaison between the two boards, or something else.

Author

SPLOST ready for city approvals

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – In a Special Called Meeting on June 15, a final Resolution was put for consideration of the cities of Ellijay and East Ellijay for an upcoming SPLOST Referendum.

Having received input from each city’s mayor and gone through previous negotiations on percentages, the resolution has now reached the time to be put forth in these city’s council meetings for consideration and approval before the county can officially put it on the ballot as a joint SPLOST between the municipalities.

While the meeting was a formality to provide the final form of the resolution, it did provide the actual document to be put forth to the cities and, if approved, ultimately put to a public vote for the next SPLOST cycle.

The SPLOST referendum is set to continue the current 1% sales tax that is currently in place. Even though the municipalities are preparing early, it will not overlap the current SPLOST cycle.

Below are the six pages of the referendum as it currently exists:

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Gilmer County talks SPLOST with Ellijay and East Ellijay

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – A unique meeting saw the Gilmer County Board of Commissioners sitting with Ellijay Mayor Al Hoyle and East Ellijay Mayor Mack West to speak about the possibility of a new SPLOST cycle for the county as a whole.

While the Board of Commissioners could move forward with the SPLOST without the cities, joining together provides many benefits to each municipality including a more expansive list of projects without a state-regulated list of prioritization and a one-year-extension on the SPLOST cycle to make it a six-year program instead of just five years.

One of the major items needed in the meeting was an agreed amount that could be expected from the tax. According to regulations on the program, if a government puts forth a SPLOST and sets its expected return above what it actually receives, there is no penalty. However, if that SPLOST achieves the expected return early, no more collections could be made, causing a gap in collections and revenue from the sales tax.

With that in mind, the meeting came to a conclusion to estimate $31 million in revenue from the tax.

Both Mayors in the meeting looked to increase their city’s portions of the SPLOST in favor of rising costs of major projects, Hoyle spoke on Ellijay’s behalf saying that increase paving costs and projects that the city is in need of accomplishing could greatly benefit from an increase in their percentage.

Likewise, West echoed these concerns siting a specific project as they have repaved the area of Eller Road and the intersection at Highland Crossing before reaching Highway 515.

On the other hand, the county discussed the county’s continued financial pains attempting to pay back their bond debt, looking at the vast majority of their SPLOST collection dedicated to paying back that debt at close to $4 million a year.

Ultimately, the decisions came down very similar to how the SPLOST has been divided currently. With the County currently taking 92.35% of the SPLOST, they backed off the extra part of a percent making the division at an easy round number of the percentage.

The County will receive 92%.

Ellijay will receive 6%.

East Ellijay will receive 2%.

Still, this negotiation is preliminary. Each Mayor will now take the proposal back to their cities for approval before the county can approve the final agreement and move forward with offering the SPLOST option to a vote for citizens. If all goes according to plan and no major obstacles are met, It could mean citizens could see the vote for this on the ballot this November.

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Lower Cartecay Bridge gains priority in state replacement program

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – The Gilmer County Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlie Paris officially announced at the May BOC meeting that he received word that the State DOT (Department of Transportation) program replacing bridges across the state will move the Lower Cartecay Road bridge further up the list.

Originally, the commissioners were seeking to swap places of the Vanilla Lane Bridge, which was third on the list, and the Lower Cartecay Road bridge, which has only been added since last year. However, Paris commented on Thursday, May 10, that the bridge is set to move up the list. Though he didn’t know for sure exactly how it would work, he did say, “Right now, what it looks like is that the Lower Cartecay will be moved to the top of the list, but Vanilla Lane will continue at number four.”

Paris told those at the meeting that he had contacted Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston about interceding on the county’s behalf to get the bridge added to the list. He stated the Speaker’s help in the county’s sudden need was integral to the process that has now seen the bridge added to the list and moved to a priority position.

Having received a Memorandum of Understanding from the DOT for Vanilla Lane, the commissioners discovered that while they were originally estimating their half of the costs of obtaining the right of way to be somewhere around $15,000 to $20,000, the official estimation of the total costs according to the memorandum would be $207,000 bringing Gilmer’s half to $103,500.

Now the county will be looking at another memorandum in the coming weeks for the Lower Cartecay Road bridge since it has been moved up. Aside from the movement of Lower Cartecay, Paris recommended the Board move forward with sending the $103,500 to the DOT for Vanilla Lane to keep it from being dropped from the list.

As the county moves forward with both bridges it will be awaiting news on both sides as they find out if Vanilla Lane does maintain its position on the list and the progress of site visits and preliminary work on Lower Cartecay Road.

Officially approved by unanimous decision, Paris stated the excess expense will be funded out of the capital contingency fund as the expense was larger than expected.

Previously, during budget sessions last year, the members of the board discussed dedicating their entire capital contingency to be saved for replacing Lower Cartecay Road bridge if it was unable to be added to the programs list. It was stipulated as a “back-up plan” to ensure the funding would at least begin the process of saving for the replacement while the commissioners were hoping to add the bridge to the DOT program.

Now, with the bridge not only added but moved up the list, the contingency fund appears as if it will be used to fuel both bridges at a substantially lower cost. Paris stated in the meeting that with the original estimate the board received on the Lower Cartecay bridge replacement rising past $1,250,000, any “reasonable figure” the DOT provides for the costs of right-of-way would be a vast improvement worth supporting.

Additionally, if the county had not gotten onto the list with Lower Cartecay, they would have been saving their entire contingency funds for at least 2018 and 2019 pushing back the project to begin, at the earliest, in 2020. Now, this program places the Lower Cartecay bridge at the number one slot. Even with the late start, the project will begin its process with engineering and architecture this year. Citizens could potentially see construction beginning as early as next year.

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Amending the county’s budget amendments

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – Budget adjustments are some things the county has grown accustomed to over the years as the Board of Commissioners continue running the county through unexpected expenses throughout the year.

A disputation arose in the board’s April meetings when the subject of amending the county’s 2017 budget for final amendments was discussed. While the county has moved to less amendments over the last few years in an effort to make the budget audits look better, Post Commissioner Dallas Miller began the debate saying he felt the amendments degraded the integrity of the budget and made much of the work that the commissioners and their staff completed meaningless.

Every month, the commissioners’ Financial Officer Sandi Holden delivers an update on the budget. When adjustments come before the commissioners, if they approve the amendment, they have typically agreed on amending the budget, but put off the official resolution so they are not continually amending the budget over and over throughout the year.

Miller called the budget a “promise” to the county about their plans for the coming year. He went on to say the budget was meaningless as they “zero” the budget at year’s end, effectively rewarding those over budget.

The budget has been a point of contention over the last two years in the board as countless hours are spent near year’s end on preparing for the next year. This month’s discussion on the budget grew into two topics as Post Commissioner Travis Crouch branched the discussion into another point when he mentioned that the commissioners approve unexpected expenditures and he felt they should reflect that so as not to “punish” those who may be over their original budget, but due to a commissioner-approved expense. Crouch said that approving the amendments in April expose some of these departments and offices to appear over budget in reports for numerous months before they are finally changed.

Crouch noted the county’s recent un-budgeted expenditures, including those for the deputy to supervise inmate trash pickup as well as a change in probation funding for the three-county organization. Crouch said, “It’s not a perfect science,” but pushed for more amendments throughout the year to reflect those changes.

Delving deeper into the issues, the concerns of departments heads echoed Crouch’s concerns saying they hoped the county would respect those who stay under budget by amending their budgets with those approved by the board during the year.

Finalizing their approval at their regular session, the commissioners approved the amendments on which they had agreed throughout 2017, movement of funds to contingency, and agreed to move forward with quarterly amendments instead of one or two per year to more compromise between keeping the number of amendments through the year lower and keeping the monthly report as real and up-to-date as possible.

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