Committee reviews city alcohol ordinance, discusses enforcement needs

News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – An Alcohol Committee has been formed at the request of the Blue Ridge City Council and Mayor Donna Whitener to review the city’s alcohol ordinance. On Wednesday, April 11, the committee held its first meeting and discussed proposed amendments to the ordinance as well as other possible changes seen as needed.

The committee is composed of six members, including city council members Robbie Cornelius and Harold Herndon, city residents David Gray and Larry Versyn, and downtown restaurateurs Stuart Arp and Ken Brenneman.

At a Jan. 25 special called meeting, a first reading of an amendment to the alcohol ordinance was conducted. In that amendment, three distinct changes to the ordinance, which was first enacted in April 2011, were presented to the council. The first change in Section 110.45-34(f)(6) would change the valid time span for employee serving permits from three years to one year.

Another change in Section 110.45-14 (a) would change the wording of the conflict of interest statement for the city council to disallow a member of the council with more than a 10 percent controlling interest of an establishment licensed to sell, distribute, or deal alcohol from a “vote on any matter involving or relating to said establishment.” Previously, the ordinance required a council member holding such a controlling interest in an establishment to “divest himself thereof within 60 days” of election or appointment to office.

The third change in Section 110.45-50 (b)(2)(H) would allow for “reasonable drink specials” for regular establishments and for “licensed catered functions pursuant to an issued City permit.”

The committee discussed and reviewed these changes as well as addressed several other possible changes to the ordinance. Herndon noted that the conflict of interest section of the ordinance did not contain specific wording to include the mayor.

“That might be something we need to add,” Cornelius stated.

Versyn did point out the heading of the section included the words “officials and employees,” but also brought attention to another subsection, which reads “The Mayor, upon advice and consent of the City Council, may exempt officers and employees of the City from the provisions of this section.”

“If that’s the case, how can the mayor exempt herself?” Versysn asked. “So, that has to somehow be changed.”

Later, the conversation included other slight adjustments to the ordinance and enforcement of laws already in place. Brenneman, owner of Blue Jeans Pizza & Pasta, questioned the feasibility of the ordinance’s requirement for any front-of-the-house employee to have an alcohol serving license. He stated, to his understanding, the ordinance even requires all non-serving, front-of-the-house positions, such as a hostess, food-runner or busser, to be permitted.

“It seems to me (the ordinance) should actually be constrained to those who are actually serving,” Brenneman stated.

Arp, owner of Chester Brunnenmeyer’s Bar & Grill, stated he would like to see better enforcement of the alcohol ordinance, particularly in regard to the 50/50 food-to-alcohol sales ratio and the hours of operation for establishments serving alcohol. Currently, the ordinance requires at least one-half of the total sales of any establishment serving alcohol to be food sales. The ordinance also prohibits the sale of alcohol after 11:30 p.m.

Arp said the lack of enforcement of these policies are benefiting establishments that either are ignoring or are unaware of the policies and hurting establishments that are following the law.

“A lot of the problem is that people don’t even know the laws,” Arp stated. “I think our mission is to clean (the ordinance) up, make recommendations about if we think the hours are wrong … and then enforcement is one thing … I don’t think a mayor or a city council person should have an interest because they control recommending suspensions of licenses, approving of licenses … It’s problematic for me as a business owner (for city officials) to have that kind of power and they’re my competitor … I don’t think (the ordinance) has to be blown up. I just think it has to get tweaked.”

As for the 50/50 food-to-alcohol ratio, Arp stated he agreed with the ordinance in that regard and said his restaurant consistently produces a monthly ration of 65/35. Brenneman stated his restaurant consistently produces a 90/10 food-to-alcohol ratio. Versyn, however, stated he would like to see a less stringent ratio of 40/60 in an effort to increase business in downtown Blue Ridge.

“Right now, (patrons) leave these restaurants at 8 p.m. at night, for the most part, and they head to Ellijay where they can go drink,” Versyn said. “What I’m saying is let’s keep people in Blue Ridge, in this city, a little longer than what they’re doing now.”

To this, Cornelius stated she did not like the idea of increasing the alcohol percentage. Gray agreed with Cornelius and said, “My feeling is that there are kids on the road, my kids, and when you start serving more alcohol, that puts more risk for more accidents.”

The committee also felt the 50/50 ratio should apply to breweries and wineries in the same manner as it does to restaurants.

“I can’t tell you how many people I get coming into my restaurant at 5 p.m. on Saturday and they’re intoxicated because they’ve been drinking $15 beer tastings all day long and now I have to deal with it,” Arp said.

When Cornelius mentioned the ordinance currently places a 24-ounce limit on tastings at breweries and wineries, the issue again returned to enforcement.

“I see it every night starting at about 11 p.m., the cops start cruising,” Arp said, “and we do a great job of harassing our tourists and pulling them over, but (police officers) are not going into the places that are breaking the law that are serving them.”

Later, Arp suggested the idea of extending the hours of operation for alcohol establishments from 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights in an effort to increase business from tourists who may not be aware of the 11:30 p.m. cut-off time. “(Tourists) are used to going out later and staying out later,” Arp explained.

“As a resident, I think we do enough catering to tourists,” Gray responded.

“Like it or not, for better or worse, Blue Ridge is a tourist town,” Versyn told Gray. “If we do not cater to tourists, we will become a ghost town.”

To this, Gray told Versyn he understood but also held concern for younger drivers coming home at the same time patrons are leaving downtown restaurants. Again, the conversation returned to enforcement, and Versyn stated that restaurants are prohibited from serving anyone who is intoxicated no matter what the time.

“If we can do the enforcement, if the enforcement can be done, I have no problem with it,” Versyn stated of the 12:30 a.m. cut-off of alcohol sales, “but if we’re going to rely on the Blue Ridge City Police Department, escorting their favorites home at night instead of arresting them like they should … that is not what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Following this, Cornelius instructed the committee to continue to review the ordinance and begin an email conversation with suggestions for amendments and revisions. A second meeting was then scheduled for Wednesday, May 2, at 5:30 p.m. to finalize changes to present to the city council at the May 8 council meeting.

 

Fetch Your News is a hyper local news outlet that attracts more than 300,000 page views and 3.5 million impressions per month in Dawson, Lumpkin, White, Fannin, Gilmer, Pickens, Union, Towns and Murray counties as well as Cherokee County in N.C. FYNTV attracts approximately 15,000 viewers per week and reaches between 15,000 to 60,000 per week on our Facebook page. For the most effective, least expensive local advertising, call 706-276-6397 or email us at advertise@FetchYourNews.com

 

Author

Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

Finances discussed, ‘interim’ tag removed from Chief Scearce at city council meeting

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[Featured image: The Blue Ridge City Council welcomed Richie Walker, territory sales manager for Advanced Disposal, to its April meeting. Advanced Disposal will be donating two dumpsters to be used during Georgia Cities Week April 21 through 27 during which the city will be sponsoring a city-wide clean-up where residents are encouraged to dispose of yard trash at one of two dumpsters located at City Hall and the Farmer’s Market. Seen here are, from left to right, front: Councilwoman Robbie Cornelius, Councilwoman Rhonda Haight, Walker, Mayor Donna Whitener; back: Councilman Nathan Fitts and Councilman Ken Gaddis.]

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – The Blue Ridge City Council addressed potential projects and city finances as well as removed the “interim” tag from Police Chief Johnny Scearce at their Tuesday, April 10, meeting.

Alicia Stewart, city finance director, presented an extensive break-down of the city’s finances along with current projects being undertaken by the city during a capital planning session. The purpose of the session, as explained by Mayor Donna Whitener, was to develop 12 to 18-month plan for the city.

Stewart began by addressing the city water fund and announced the amounts of revenue versus the cost of current projects, such as the current Community Development Block Grant project match ($79,244.46), phase II of the East Main Street project ($372,243.41), and a payoff for a 2015 Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) loan ($108,000) among others. All told, the city has approximately $884,780.81 in cash available remaining in the water fund balance, according to Stewart.

However, also in her presentation, Stewart presented the council with a list of prioritized water infrastructure needs anticipated for the city over the next five years. Among those needed projects are an over $2 million line relocation project for water lines required by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) for the forthcoming state Route 5 highway expansion, a $500,000 upgrade project to the Aska Road sewer substation and a projected $640,000 for phases III and IV of a meter replacement project.

“Bottom line is we have $884,000 in spendable money, and we’ve got about $4 million in projects,” Whitener said. “So the next time somebody says, ‘Oh, we’ve got all these projects,’ we don’t have money … and these are projects that really can’t stay on the back burner too much longer.”

As far as this year’s Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) revenue, Whitener suggested two road projects: a turning lane for Blue Ridge Elementary School and a repaving project on West First Street. The mayor stated after those projects and factoring a negative balance of $46,707 from last year’s SPLOST, about $50,000 will remain in SPLOST funds this year.

Stewart also explained there is an amount of $320,523.09 in cash available from the general fund and close to $584,000 in reserves, which is $400,000 from the sale of the marina property and a $183,000 cd (certificate of deposit).

“Those two together put us just right at the $600,000-ish that would be needed to meet our policy of holding 25 percent of our budget as reserve,” Stewart explained. “So, if we dip into that, we’re not reserving according to our policy.”

Whitener then announced a list of potential projects and the ensuing costs she told the council to consider, including approximately $100,000 for repairs to the city hall roof, $75,000 to $100,000 for stormwater run-off projects, up to $300,000 for a grant match for downtown bathrooms, $350,000 to $400,000 for major upgrades and renovations of the city pool, and undetermined amounts for potential renovations of the farmer’s market, renovations of the deck at the depot and several street projects.

“I need you all to be thinking about this before the next meeting because you are going to have to make some decisions,” Whitener told the council.

Later in the meeting, Councilwoman Rhonda Haight proposed the idea of hiring an independent contractor to conduct a comprehensive parking study for the city. Haight explained that she and Councilman Nathan Fitts had recently participated in several meetings in an effort to obtain grants for enhancing downtown parking and installing downtown public restrooms.

“Everybody we’ve met with so far they’ve asked do we have a comprehensive parking study in place,” Haight said, “and pretty much, for us to get any money, if we even can with grants or even a loan, we’re going to have to have a comprehensive parking study.”

Haight also stated the city, last year, had received an estimate for a parking study that would cost $28,000 to $30,000.

Concerning the requirement of the study to apply for grants, Fitts added, “We’ve been sitting down at a lot of these meetings and the requirements to even apply for grants and get grants is more comprehensive than I ever even realized, so we’re going to have to have this regardless.”

After this, Haight made a motion to proceed with steps to conduct the study, which was followed by a second from Fitts with the provision for the city to receive estimates for the study. Initially, the vote was stalled when Fitts and Haight voted in favor of the study, but council members Robbie Cornelius, Ken Gaddis and Harold Herndon all delayed in voting. Cornelius and Gaddis both questioned the financing of the study.

“One of reasons I asked Alicia (Stewart) to look at doing as much as she did on the (capital planning information) you got today is so you understood where the money is and where it will have to come from, so therefore, if you approve up to $30,000 for this study, remember that you’re pushing something else (another project) down the road,” Whitener told the council.

Another vote was taken with Fitts and Haight again voting in favor, Cornelius and Gaddis voting against and Herndon abstaining. After consulting with City Attorney James Balli as to the nature of the vote, Mayor Whitener voted in favor of the parking study to break the tie, allowing for the city to proceed with the study as proposed.

In other items, the council also unanimously voted to appoint Johnny Scearce as the Blue Ridge City Police chief without the attached tag of “interim”. At the first city council meeting of the the new year and new administration Jan.9, the council voted unanimously to add the title of “interim” to Scearce’s role as police chief until such time as another permanent police chief could be installed to replace Scearce. At this month’s meeting, the decision to remove the “interim” tag was made without discussion or explanation as to the council’s reasoning behind the move.

First readings for two city ordinances were given at the meeting. The first ordinance, as explained by City Attorney James Balli, would condense both the Zoning Board of Appeals and the city Planning Commission from seven members to five members each. Balli further explained each city council member would appoint one member to serve on each board and appointees would be allowed to serve on both boards. According to Balli, the ordinance, if passed, would amend an already established city ordinance to be compliant with the City Charter and state law.

The other ordinance, termed an Illumination Ordinance, would, according to the wording, make it “unlawful for any person, organization of persons, or entity to willfully tamper with, illegally project light upon, mutilate or deface any City personal or real property, including, without limitation, trees, other plants, buildings, drive-in theaters screens, vehicles or other equipment for lighting, firefighting, police protection or water and sewer installation and
maintenance.” First-time violators of the ordinance would face a civil fine of at least $500 and subsequent violations would be punishable by a civil fine of at least $500 and up to 90 days in jail.

The council voted to increase water rates for wholesale users from $3.25 per 1,000 gallons to $4.25 per 1,000 gallons. Becky Harkins, city utilities director, explained that the cost to the city to produce and provide water to wholesale users has recently increased to $3.75 per 1,000 gallons. Harkins also added that, if approved, the rate increase would take effect in 90 days, beginning with the July billing cycle. After Mayor Whitener asked Anita Weaver, chairwoman of the Fannin County Water Authority (FCWA), about the fairness of the 90-day advance notice to the FCWA, Weaver stated the Authority, one of the wholesale users that would be affected by the increase, would prefer a six-month notice. As a compromise, the council approved the rate increase, which will take effect in 120 days as opposed to 90.

In a follow-up discussion from the March 13 meeting, Councilman Gaddis stated that steps are being taken by the council in coordination with City Clerk Kelsey Ledford and City Attorney Balli to amend the city council’s rules of procedures for meetings to allow for more public commentary on action items before a final vote is taken. Gaddis explained he would like to see speakers be given a chance to address the council in an open-mic forum. He also added he did not want to place a limit on the number of speakers allowed to speak. However, Haight suggested setting a time limit for speakers, and Fitts suggested only allowing one person from a given organization or group to speak on a particular action item. Balli stated drafts of the amended rules of procedures are being composed, and Gaddis said he would like for the issue to come to a vote at the May meeting.

The future of the farmer’s market property was again addressed by the council. Haight stated she had received some feedback from two different groups interested in using the farmer’s market in some capacity. Gaddis said he personally had received no interest from anyone.

“If we don’t have anything by the next meeting, I would ask that we maybe could open this up for leasing options,” Gaddis said. “Obviously, strict leasing options to preserve the farmer’s market and everything about the history of the farmer’s market.”

After a brief executive session, the council reconvened and approved two personnel decisions. The council approved Chief Scearce to hire Ricky Henry as an officer starting at a rate of $16 an hour. Also, the hiring of Mark Patterson as water treatment plant supervisor was approved at the rate of $21.50 an hour.

 

Author

Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

Multiple topics addressed at Blue Ridge town hall meeting

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BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – The future of the farmer’s market property and the city pool stood out among five main topics of conversation addressed by the Blue Ridge City Council as well as dozens of attending citizens in a town hall meeting Tuesday, March 27.

In the February and March council meetings, the council discussed options for either selling, leasing or renovating the farmer’s market property off of Summit Street. At the most recent meeting, Jim Sisson, owner of Sisson Log Homes, expressed his desire to either buy or lease the property as an overflow space to use for drying materials for his business.

While the council members seemingly agreed in the past meetings in their desire to renovate the property and to reopen it as an arts and/or entertainment destination in an ideal scenario, the podium was opened to the audience at the town hall meeting for direct input from citizens to gauge the consensus of residents.

Accepting the invitation was Joe Webb, of Dial, who explained that while he lives outside the city limits, he does have an interest in the city, working with the Blue Ridge Community Theater. Among the suggestions put forth by Webb were to use the property as a centralized location for a stand-alone public library or to simply sell the property to the highest bidder in an effort to establish “hotel and some retail density in that area.”

Webb went on to admit while there is some sentimental value attributed to the property, “economically, it’s literally a relic of the past.”

Another citizen, Larry Bersyn, asked about the amount of income the farmer’s market property was contributing to the city.

“It has zero income, right now, just expenses,” Mayor Donna Whitener answered, referring to utility costs.

“So, why do we still have it?” Bersyn asked.

Councilwoman Rhonda Haight explained the farmer’s market is a unique property that the city owns. “It could become a really neat art district, which we don’t have,” Haight added, also stating she would like to see the property double as an event center.

Councilman Nathan Fitts stated he liked the idea of converting the area into an arts and cultural center but was concerned about the cost to renovate.

“We do have somebody who would like to lease it,” Whitener reminded the council, likely referring to Sisson. “So until we we come up with a plan, why do we not consider leasing it out? At least it stops our bleeding.”

Whitener also explained Sisson would be willing to temporarily lease the property and move off the property once the city did produce a long-term plan for the property as long as he was given a 30 to 60-day notice to vacant.

Another citizen pointed out that an arts and cultural district would mostly benefit tourists but selling the property to make way for a stand-alone library would benefit the working people of the community.

Brian Pritchard, publisher of FetchYourNews, pleaded with the council to lease the property to Sisson, a 17-year local business owner, until a long-term plan was established. “Make a long-term plan, but maybe in the short-term, lease it to Mr. Sisson and say, ‘Thank you for being a business owner in the city for 17 years,'” Pritchard said.

Ultimately, Mayor Whitener agreed this was the best option for the city.

Tony Byrd, left, discusses repairs to the city pool with the Blue Ridge City Council.

Tony Byrd, city street superintendent and shop mechanic, was on hand at the meeting to discuss maintenance issues with the city pool. Whitener explained the pool has a leak in the main drain and needs replacement of internal filters, manifold gaskets and valves. She also stated there was possible leak in the skimmer system.

Byrd stated to repair the aforementioned issues, the estimate would be between $5,000 and $10,000. If there is a leak in the skimmer system, Whitener stated it would be “many tens of thousands” of dollars to repair. The mayor also said she asked Byrd to present a definite amount to the council by the April meeting for the costs to repair the smaller issues to open it for this summer and then the city would look to the 2019 pool season to have the more expensive issues resolved.

Whitener also stated 1,429 people used the pool in 2017, which amounted to just under $6,000 in revenue.

In addition to repairing the pool, the council discussed ideas for constructing a city splash pad and Whitener suggested forming a committee to look for grants and/or create a campaign to generate funds to pay for these projects.

When Haight asked the audience for input, Bersyn said, “Sell the farmer’s market, use the money from the farmer’s market to pay for the pool (and) we have a new pool next year … And stop wasting the city’s money.”

Joe Webb, left, talks with the Blue Ridge City Council about the possibility of working with the county to build an indoor pool facility.

Webb also spoke on the issue and mentioned that the county was studying the prospect of creating an indoor pool at the Tom Boyd Recreation Center. Webb stated he would rather see an indoor pool located more centrally and within the city.

Council members Nathan Fitts and Haight agreed to meet with the county in the near future about the possibility of forming a joint venture to build an indoor pool.

 

The upcoming Georgia Cities Week, which will take place April 22 to 28 in Blue Ridge, was discussed by the council. Georgia Cities Week is a week-long celebration sponsored by the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA). GMA is a non-profit legal advocacy organization, of which Blue Ridge is a municipality member, that offers consulting services to its member cities.

During the week, Blue Ridge will be coordinating a city-wide litter clean-up campaign in which residents and organizations are asked to dispose of accumulated litter in two dumpsters donated by Advanced Disposal that will be situated at locations within the city limits. Possible dumpster locations discussed by council included the farmer’s market property on Summit Street, near the Co-Op store on East Main Street and possibly at the Kiwanis Fairgrounds.

In the same vein, Council Members Ken Gaddis and Rhonda Haight put forth the idea of the city beginning to conduct a regular small brush pick-up twice in the month of April and again during the fall after leaves have fallen in an effort to keep gutters and storm drains clear of debris.

The city will also conduct a Mayor’s Essay Contest during the week, which will be open to all elementary, middle, high school or home school students. Those participating in the essay contest should compose a 150 to 300-word essay centered around the topic of “If I were mayor, I would …”

Other discussed ideas for Georgia Cities Week included reaching out to Red Cross, the Humane Society of Blue Ridge, and Georgia Mountains Health about possibly conducting a blood drive, animal adoption fair and health fair, respectively.

Mayor Donna Whitener stated she had recently spoken to representatives from the local chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA) who expressed interest in participating in a beautification project for the downtown area, which would include situating planters along the sidewalks near downtown businesses. Whitener explained the city would be responsible for the purchase of the planters and plants and “they (FFA) will put (the planters) together for us.”

When the mayor asked local business owner and President of the Blue Ridge Business Association (BRBA) Cesar Martinez of the number of planters he thought would be needed, Martinez said he felt 30 planters would be sufficient.

Regarding another area of downtown beautification, Martinez spoke to the council about the possibility of erecting standards along streets to display small flags or banners. Martinez stated several different types of banners could be produced displaying the various downtown events, such as Fire & Ice or Trout Fest, that take place throughout the year. He added if the city paid for the standards, the Chamber of Commerce and the BRBA would be willing to split costs with the city to produce the banners. Whitener stated she thought the standards ran around $25 a piece and Pam Fink, of the BRBA, said the cost to produce the flags would be around $35 per flag.

Martinez was told to put together a definite proposal to present to the council at a later date.

An update on the current Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) project near Orchard Boulevard was given. The mayor stated the water infrastructure improvement project was scheduled to begin April 5. The council spoke of what to consider for the next CDBG project, and it was agreed that addressing the flooding issues near Ada Street should be the next project.

At the March 13 council meeting, Ben and Natalie Kissel, city residents who live in the Ada Street flood plain, talked with the council about recent flooding problems in that neighborhood. Gaddis reported that he along with a representative from Carter & Sloope, the city’s contracted engineering firm, visited the area Wednesday, March 21, to study the issue.

“There are some serious issues we’re having in flooding areas and we put together a pretty good game plan,” Gaddis explained. He added that surveyors from Carter & Sloope would be examining the area to determine which property owners would need to provide the city with easements to allow the city to move forward with a long-term improvement project. In the short-term, Gaddis stated the city could install storm culverts and water bumper rails to help direct water flow away from owners’ properties.

Whitener also mentioned the city could receive additional state funding assistance by pursuing a WaterFirst Community designation. The mayor said this application process typically takes about six to eight months. The designation is awarded to municipalities demonstrating a strong commitment to water resource stewardship by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

A project to construct a two, or possibly three, story downtown restroom facility near the depot was also discussed. According to Whitener, the existing plan to build a two-story facility would cost $450,000 and the city has already been approved for a $300,000 Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant, leaving the city to pay the remaining $150,000. Fitts reported he had heard the cost would be in the range of $750,000.

After Martinez asked about a target date for finalizing plans for the restrooms, Mayor Whitener stated the city would know more after its meeting with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs Wednesday about options for the ARC grant.

 

Author

Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

City council to hold town hall meeting Tuesday

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BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – An agenda has been set for Tuesday night’s Blue Ridge City Council town hall meeting.

Headlining the meeting will be discussion of the upcoming Georgia Cities Week, a week-long celebration from April 22 to 28 of cities across Georgia sponsored by the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA). GMA is a non-profit legal advocacy organization, of which Blue Ridge is a municipality member, that offers consulting services to its member cities.

During Georgia Cities Week, the city will be coordinating a city-wide litter clean-up. Donated dumpsters will be situated at locations within the city limits. Also, the city will conduct a Mayor’s Essay Contest, which will be open to all elementary, middle, high school or home school students. Those participating in the essay contest should compose a 150 to 300-word essay centered around the topic of “If I were mayor, I would …”

The council will also report on the progress of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) water infrastructure improvement project occurring in the neighborhoods east of East Second Street.

The farmer’s market is also on the agenda for the town hall meeting. During the last two city council meetings, the future of the farmer’s market property has been a much-discussed topic. At the February meeting, Council members Rhonda Haight and Ken Gaddis led discussion of the city council’s desire for the city to keep the property and refurbish the facility.

However, at the March 13 meeting, Jim Sisson, owner of Sisson Log Homes, approached the council with the prospect of buying, or perhaps leasing, the property through a bidding process. Sission explained his company would use the property for an overflow area for materials during the drying process. No decision was made, and the council agreed that local input from citizens at the town hall meeting would assist in reaching an ultimate decision for the future of the property.

Another item to be addressed at the town hall is downtown public restrooms. At the March 13 meeting, local business owner and President of the Blue Ridge Business Association (BRBA) Cesar Martinez pleaded with the council to find solution to what he felt are the city’s two most important downtown needs: parking and restrooms. Councilman Nathan Fitts assured Martinez the city was working diligently to address both of these downtown needs.

The city pool is also slated to be discussed at the town hall. The council has addressed the idea of refurbishing the city pool at prior meetings and have mentioned the success of the Blairsville city pool as an example for Blue Ridge to follow in this regard.

Rounding out the meeting will be a public commentary session.

The town hall meeting will take at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 27, at the Blue Ridge City Hall on West First Street.

 

Fetch Your News is a hyper local news outlet that attracts more than 300,000 page views and 3.5 million impressions per month in Dawson, Lumpkin, White, Fannin, Gilmer, Pickens, Union, Towns and Murray counties as well as Cherokee County in N.C. FYNTV attracts approximately 15,000 viewers per week and reaches between 15,000 to 60,000 per week on our Facebook page. For the most effective, least expensive local advertising, call 706-276-6397 or email us at advertise@FetchYourNews.com

Author

Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

Police department, city employees to see pay increases

News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – After a one-hour and 26-minute executive session during their Tuesday, March 13, meeting, the Blue Ridge City Council reconvened to announce and approve pay increases for the city Police Department and other city employee positions.

Pay increases for the Police Department are as follows:

  • Interim Chief of Police Johnny Scearce will receive $28.95 an hour, up from $26.32;
  • Captain/Investigator Rob Stuart will receive $22.76 an hour, up from $20.14;
  • Sergeant Joe Patterson will receive $20.27 an hour, up from $17.48;
  • Corporal Justin Ware will receive $17.92 an hour, up from $15.45;
  • Officer Sam Rosiles will receive $17.40 an hour, up from $15.00;
  • Officer Ricky Henry will receive $15.00 an hour, up from $13.39;
  • Assistant Chief Mike Presswood will receive $23.89 an hour, up from $21.72;
  • Lieutenant Gary Huffman will receive $21.23 an hour, up from $18.78;
  • Corporal Michael Green will receive $18.22 an hour, up from  $15.71;
  • Officer James Chastain will receive $15.00 an hour, up from $14.63;
  • Officer TJ Alexander will receive $15.00 an hour, up from $13.91; and
  • Officer Gerald Webb will receive $15.00 an hour, up from $14.63.

Also, the starting pay for the city Police Department will now be $15.00 an hour, up from $14.00. Of the increases, Councilman Nathan Fitts explained an analysis of surrounding police departments in north Georgia was conducted recently and the Blue Ridge Police Department was found to be one of the lowest-paid departments in the area. The increases, Fitts said, are still within the Police Department’s budget and will give the department a more competitive pay. Councilman Ken Gaddis stated the department was “deserving of the raises.”

City pool employees will also see a bump in pay this summer. New-hire lifeguards will make $8.00 an hour, returning concession workers will receive $9.00 and head lifeguards will make $10.00 an hour.

In addition, City Clerk Kelsey Ledford will receive $17.74 an hour, up from $13.94 and will now work at City Hall five days a week. Council members explained research had proven the city clerk’s pay, like the Police Department, was below that of surrounding areas.

 

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Author

Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

News from Fannin County Chamber of Commerce

Community
Fannin County Chamber of Commerce  eNewsletter
March 20, 2018
News for Members
Fannin Co. Chamber Logo

Leading the way to economic vitality and quality of life in Blue Ridge, McCaysville, Morganton and all of beautiful Fannin County, Georgia.

March Community Events Calendar
March 1-28 – Youth Art Month, Blue Ridge Mountains Arts Association

In This Issue
Business After Hours
Publications Deadline
Community Events Calendar

row_of_eggs_daisies.jpg

Chamber Calendar of Events
March 20 – Business After Hours at University of North Georgia, 83 Dunbarton Farm Rd., Blue Ridge
5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
March 21 – Board of Directors Meeting, Fannin County Chamber of Commerce Meeting Room, Executive Committee Meeting at 11:00 a.m., Board Meeting at 12:00 p.m.
March 27 – Ribbon Cutting for Home Instead Senior Care, Fannin County Chamber
10:00 a.m.
March 28 – Ribbon Cutting for Southern Drug Co., 4075 East 1st St., Blue Ridge
11:00 a.m.
March 29 – Leadership Fannin, Education, Fannin County High School Field House
9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
March 29 – Golf Committee Meeting at the Chamber
12:00 p.m.
March 30 – Welcome Centers closed in observance of Good Friday
April 1 – Welcome Centers closed in observance of Easter
_________________
Member Events
Dual Enrollment at Dalton State College
CASA Flyer

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The mission of the Fannin County Chamber of Commerce is to provide services to members, support existing business and promote economic development and tourism, while preserving and enhancing our community’s character, natural resources and quality of life.

Blue Ridge City Council hears flooding complaint

News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – Blue Ridge City Council met Tuesday, March 13, with a number of action and discussion items on its agenda. Headlining those items were an adoption of a city open records policy, potential improvements and repairs to City Hall and residential property flooding near Ada Street.

Regarding the open records policy, City Attorney James Balli stated the city is governed by the state Open Records Act, which preempts any city ordinance or policy. The attorney explained the Georgia Municipal Association advises all member municipalities to adopt an official opens records policy.

“(The policy) provides more explanation,” Balli added. “It doesn’t change any rules, which we can’t do that.”

Balli further explained the policy would allow “faster access to routine documents to citizens and the press” and that citizens of the city would be given priority on requests but that all requests would be fulfilled in a timely manner. Balli told the council the city previously did not have an official open records policy. He also stated while the state Open Records Act does not require a request in written form, a written request utilizing the city’s open records request form is encouraged and required to ensure the fulfillment of requests to those making the requests.

According to the city open records policy, from the time an open records request is made, the city has three business days to determine whether the requested information is subject to disclosure or redacted disclosure and to either produce the information upon payment of any applicable fees or provide the person requesting records with a timeline of when the information will be produced if said information is not immediately available.

The policy further states, “If the requested record is not subject to disclosure, or full disclosure, the City Attorney (or his or her designee) shall identify in writing to the requestor the provision of law that makes all or part of a record exempt from disclosure. The City Attorney’s decision regarding exemption or partial exemption of a record shall be the final decision.”

The Georgia Open Records Act O.C.G.A. § 50-18-70 defines public and open records as “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, computer based or generated information, data, data fields, or similar material prepared and maintained or received by an agency. Public records also mean such items received or maintained by a private person or entity in the performance of a service or function for or on behalf of an agency and such items transferred to a private person or entity for storage or future governmental use.”

A budget allotment of up to $10,000 was approved for a kitchen remodel project at City Hall. Finance Director Alicia Stewart explained city Clerk of Court and Office Manager Barbie Gerald had requested the amount to cover costs for cabinets, counters, hardware, a sink, a faucet, grout, tile, mirrors, an oven hood and labor. Stewart added the estimate for the these items stood at $6,850.31 and did not include appliances. “I think Barbie (Gerald) wanted a little higher than ($6,850.31) just in case there was something that came up,” Stewart said of the potential additional allotment.

During the approval vote, Councilman Ken Gaddis voted against the allotment and Councilman Nathan Fitts was initially undecided, stating at one point that he had seen some repurposed items listed on social media recently that could alleviate costs to the city and also admitting he had not reviewed information on the materials. After a second vote was taken, however, Fitts voted in favor of the allotment. Councilman Harold Herndon was not present for the meeting.

The council later discussed whether to repair the overhang roof of the drive-through area outside City Hall or to demolish it entirely. The roof of the overhang and a portion of the main building’s roof was damaged in an April 2017 storm and the city recently received an insurance claims check for $20,165 for the damage to the overhang. Last month, the council weighed repair options but ultimately agreed repairs to the overhang would not be frugal given the city’s hopes to eventually adapt that side of City Hall and the adjoining parking lot into a two-story parking deck.

A suggestion was made to demolish the overhang and erect an outdoor drop box for any payments to the city. Fitts questioned where the city fire engine would be parked if the overhang was demolished and the idea to approach the county about possibly storing the engine at the forthcoming public safety complex on Windy Ridge Road was mentioned. Mayor Donna Whitener further explained the city is hoping to still receive further insurance claims funds for the damage suffered to the main building’s roof. She also stated the council would have to decide between repairing the roof with shingles or with metal roofing.

Ultimately, the item was tabled to allow the council more time to gather further information.

In public commentary, Ben Kissel, a city resident, addressed the council concerning recent flooding to his property as well as neighboring properties off of Ada Street. In his statement, Kissel explained the flooding issue was a direct result of a collapsed pipe on his property and related the collapse to an artificial concentration of large amounts of water funneling into his property from developments approved by the city. Kissel also noted before the pipe collapse, flooding had never been an issue on his property, but during the month of February, his property had flooded three times.

Ada Street resident Ben Kissel, left, discusses a flooding issue on his property with the Blue Ridge City Council as Councilmembers Ken Gaddis, center, and Nathan Fitts hear his complaint.

“Therefore, I feel it has become the city’s responsibility being that we nor the property owners before us have ever been compensated for these actions,” Kissel stated.

Kissel said in discussions with the mayor and city council members during the past year, he and his wife, Natalie Kissel, “have been given the runaround” concerning the issue. Infrastructure, Kissel stated, was a top priority mentioned in nearly every candidate’s campaign platforms during last year’s elections for city council, at times, “even citing my property in your campaigns.”

“But what it really comes down to is your actual priorities. Three months into your terms, and I have seen the approval to supply water to a cherry picked development (Staurolite Mountain) outside of the city limits,” Kissel continued. “I have heard that the price tag for this venture is upward of $50,000. That is almost 8 percent of the total cost to fix the entire drainage infrastructure to our city. That is 8 percent that the residents and business owners will have to wait even longer for you to come up with.”

Kissel went on to cite other recently discussed potential expenditures, such as the $10,000 allotment, approved earlier in the meeting, for the kitchen remodel and a sound system for the downtown area.

After this, Kissel presented the city with three options: fix the issue themselves, allow the Kissels to fix the issue and “the third option, and your most expensive, is to continue to do what you have done and that is nothing.”

Kissel also presented the council with a copy of the Georgia Nuisance Law, which requires land owners, developers, municipalities and counties to protect the rights of adjoining property owners from the unnatural effects of land development. “The city is in direct violation of that law,” Kissel added.

Later, Councilman Gaddis explained the intricacies involved in creating a drainage area and suggested that the city’s engineering firm, Carter & Sloope, investigate the drainage issue immediately. “I would love to get this done, and I think we should get Carter & Sloope on this as soon as possible,” Gaddis added. “I just want to apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Kissel here for this issue.”

Mayor Whitener reminded everyone that the previous council had already approved for Carter & Sloope to conduct engineering studies in the drainage area near Ada Street last year but added that the council had not yet approved for any work to take place.

Near the end of the discussion, City Attorney Balli told the council, “For the record, I hear what the council is saying and I don’t necessarily agree with some of the legal opinions as to who may or may not be responsible … We go by your decisions, not mine.”

On Thursday, Ben Kissel confirmed action was being taken from the city council to resolve the issue and representatives from Carter & Sloope are slated to visit the drainage area near Ada Street next week.

Author

Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

Farmer’s market property, drive-in discussed at council meeting

News

[Featured image: Jim Sisson, left, of Sisson Log Homes, discusses the possibility of purchasing the farmer’s market property from the city with council members Ken Gaddis, second from left, Nathan Fitts, Mayor Donna Whitener, and City Attorney James Balli.]

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – In a three-hour Blue Ridge City Council meeting Tuesday night, March 13, a wide variety of topics took center stage.

The future of the farmer’s market property off of Summit Street was discussed again. Last month, the council weighed options for the property moving forward and discussed whether to sell, lease or refurbish the property. Strong opposition to sell was voiced by Councilwoman Rhonda Haight and Councilman Ken Gaddis and the council agreed to discuss the issue further at a following meeting.

This month, Jim Sisson, owner of Sisson Log Homes, was present to propose selling the property in a bidding process. Sisson spoke of recent uses, such as held festivals and overflow parking, for the property and stated the property was not an ideal location for either purpose. He also described the property as “negative-performing asset,” meaning that it is and would cost the city more to operate it than the revenue the property would generate. Sisson cited costs for liability insurance and utilities as necessary operating expenditures to the city. Mayor Donna Whitener estimated the city spends between $6,000 and $10,000 a year on utilities alone for the property.

“If you were to sell it us or somebody else, it would at least be bringing in some tax revenue,” Sisson continued.

Whitener mentioned in earlier talks with Sisson, the prospect of leasing the property was discussed. “Have you put any thought into that?” Whitener asked Sisson.

Sisson responded saying his company would prefer to buy the property but would consider leasing it instead. He also added that the property would be used as an overflow area for Sisson Log Homes to store materials in the drying process and no damage would come to the property. “Probably, (we would) not use the platform that is there,” Sisson said.

No decision was made by the council to proceed with any process of either selling or leasing the property.

Another city landmark, the Swan Drive-In, was discussed during the council meeting. Earlier in the day, the city released a statement via social media addressing and denying rumors of the city attempting to close the drive-in as a result of noise complaints received from nearby residents.

In that post, city representatives stated, “The city is committed to working with stakeholders on both sides of the issue to reach a solution that continues to allow the Swan to operate as one of the City’s favorite attractions.”

At the council meeting, City Attorney James Balli also addressed the concern saying, “Let me be clear: the drive-in is going nowhere. I will say that one more time very slowly. The drive-in is going nowhere. The city owns the drive-in. The drive-in will operate. If I had anything to do with shutting down the drive-in, my wife would make me sleep on the couch … I’ve enjoyed it just as many of you have. It’s an attraction to the city.”

However, Balli continued to say the city was beginning to look into various options to address the noise ordinance complaints stemming from the drive-in. The city attorney also stated the operator of the drive-in is exploring methods to reduce noise emanating from the site.

“We would always favor citizens working things out privately without any involvement from the city,” Balli said, adding the city was confident a mutual agreement would soon be reached.

Whitener told the council she visited the drive-in over the previous weekend and was told a 20-foot-high, 100-foot-long noise buffering screen is slated to be installed soon. “So, we won’t know (of the screen’s effectiveness) until it goes up. So give us a chance to work through that,” Whitener said.

Later, Councilman Ken Gaddis spoke of the city’s current policy for meeting decorum. Gaddis stated, “The previous council took a stand to where public comments was not necessary, was not required and definitely was not important.”

Garnering applause from the audience, Gaddis explained he would like to see any item requiring a motion go to public comment before moving to a vote from the council.

“I don’t come up and say I know anything really,” Gaddis continued. “You all voted me in. For whatever reason, you all thought I was important. I came up here with a skill set to help with infrastructure, but everybody in the community has a skill set that’s beyond me, beyond (Councilman) Nathan (Fitts), beyond all of us, and you have an important voice and we want to hear that voice.”

Councilwoman Rhonda Haight agreed with Gaddis and clarified she did not vote on the decision to limit public commentary in the last term.

“However … I’ve seen meetings that have lasted until 11 p.m. I’ve seen meetings that have gotten completely out of control, so we would have to have control. We would have to have time limits on speech,” Haight stated.

Fitts also agreed with both Gaddis on bringing back increased public commentary and with Haight on enforcing order throughout the meeting.

Mayor Whitener explained City Clerk Kelsey Ledford was currently working to amend the meeting policy to allow for more commentary.

A budget amendment to account for incoming funds from a Georgia Municipal Association safety grant, maintenance to City Hall and the Police Department buildings, the hiring of a zoning and land development administrator, and revised pay scales for water department employees was approved by the council.

A conflict of interest exemption statement was approved by the council concerning the $500,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) awarded to the city in 2016 to upgrade water and fire protection infrastructure in portions of neighborhoods east of or near East Second Street. The statement gave public notice of technical conflicts of interest among city council members who either live or own property in the area, have family members who live in the area and/or have business interests in the area.

A town hall meeting was announced to take place at City Hall March 27 at 6 p.m. Mayor Whitener explained the meeting will address public concerns over the CDBG project, which she stated should be halfway completed by then, the farmer’s market property, the city pool, and downtown restrooms among other topics.

In other business, the council discussed the abandonment of an undeveloped portion of Hill Street near East First Street and another unnamed street near the BP gas station on West First Street.

The council also approved an annual $1,500 donation to the Humane Society for the spay and neuter of feral cats throughout Blue Ridge.

A resolution to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Fannin County, McCaysville and Morganton was approved. The memorandum of understanding is an agreement between the entities to share costs for the Nixle emergency management agency (EMA) notification service to residents and citizens.

A resolution declaring April 22 through 28, 2018, to be Georgia Cities Week in Blue Ridge approved and signed by Mayor Whitener.

In public commentary, President of the Blue Ridge Business Association (BRBA) Cesar Martinez stressed to the council the continued need for additional public parking and bathrooms in the downtown business district. Martinez offered the help of the BRBA in forming committees or focus groups to address the situation. In response, Fitts told Martinez both items were top priorities for the council. “We’re not ignoring these. We have a lot going on right now. We are diligently working on them,” Fitts said.

Local sculptor Martin McHan, who created the Blue Bear sculpture that has previously been displayed in the downtown city park, asked about the sculpture’s condition and the kiln-drying process it is currently undergoing. The sculpture was recently removed from the park after a termite infestation was discovered within it. The bear was then transferred to a large kiln operated by Sisson Log Homes in an effort to exterminate the termites. Mayor Whitener explained to McHan after the kiln-drying process is complete, the bear would be painted, restored to the park and the city plans to erect a shelter to protect the sculpture from the weather.

McHan then addressed Jim Sisson directly saying, “Mr. Sisson, I’d like to personally, from the bottom of my heart, thank you … I’d like to thank you for putting (the sculpture) in that kiln because I know how much that costs … It’s a very, very expensive process that this man has donated.”

 

 

 

Author

Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

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