City attorney decision discussed by Whitener, Thomas-Haight

News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – Following the recent hiring of new Blue Ridge city attorney, James A. Balli, at the Jan. 9 city council meeting, Mayor Donna Whitener and Councilwoman Rhonda Thomas-Haight spoke with FetchYourNews about some of the details regarding the city’s decision to replace former city attorney David Syfan with Balli.

Providing specific reasons for replacing Syfan, both Whitener and Thomas-Haight expressed the need for a change in representation.  “(Syfan’s) been with the city for 20 years,” Thomas-Haight stated. “It’s time for a change. Of course, every four years, we appoint that position, and (with) the new council, we just felt like it was time for a change.”

“As I’ve mentioned several times, I felt like (Syfan) didn’t represent the entire group (of the mayor and council members),” Whitener added. “I want a city attorney that works for all six of us and for the city and the citizens.”

The mayor went on to clarify that Balli has not represented any of the city council members or herself previously. She said, “Of course, that became a little bit of an issue … (The new council) felt like they wanted somebody that represented all of us on an equal playing field.”

Mayor Donna Whitener, left, City Attorney James Balli and Councilwoman Rhonda Thomas-Haight attend the Jan. 9 Blue Ridge City Council meeting.

During the city council meeting, in which Balli was hired, Whitener explained that four candidates, in addition to Syfan, applied for the position of city attorney. Balli was inevitably hired at a reduced rate of $175 per hour with a rate of $200 per hour for time spent representing the city in court. Among the other attorneys who applied for the position were local attorneys Lynn Doss and Cortney Stuart, whose clients include Fannin County and city of McCaysville, respectively, and Atlanta attorney Kelly Michael Hundley, who currently represents the city of Hiram, Georgia, according to information obtained from the city of Blue Ridge.

Doss, who, according to Whitener and Thomas-Haight, withdrew her application from consideration prior to the council meeting, had offered her services to the city at the per-hour rate of $175. Stuart offered a rate of $150 per hour with a $100 monthly retainer fee. Hundley proposed a rate of $150 per hour with a $175 per hour rate for legal proceeding representation.

Though Syfan’s previous per-hour rate of $95 was considerably lower than that of Balli’s current rate, Thomas-Haight explained, “I know sometimes it appeared, in my opinion, as if projects seemed to take a long time.”

In regard to the potential hiring of Stuart, Whitener explained that the Georgia Municipal Association, which provides legislative advocacy and consulting services to member cities, had advised the city against such a relationship citing a potential representational conflict of interest.

The mayor further explained that the proper channels of advertisement for the position were utilized through publication in the legal organ. Whitener also stated that she, as well as all incoming city council members except Harold Herndon, had a chance to meet with Balli individually ahead of the meeting in order to make a determination to hire Balli. Whitener stated Herndon was unable to meet with Balli during any of the attorney’s trips to Blue Ridge due to illness.

“I felt good about (meeting with Balli) because he took the time to reach out to us and wanted to meet us and make sure we all could mesh together if we did choose his firm,” Thomas-Haight said.

“Mr. Balli seems to be a good fit for our city,” Thomas-Haight continued. “He is anxious to work with us, and we seem to all be on the same page with how we want to move forward with the city. He wants to be involved in our council meetings and that was a definite plus because Mr. Syfan, even though the charter states that the (city) attorney shall attend the meetings, he had only been to – to my recollection – five (meetings) in eight years.”

Whitener stated Balli has municipal experience and familiarity with water management. According to Balli’s submitted resume to the city, he currently serves as a board member on the Cobb-Marietta Water Authority.

“Becky (Harkins, director of Blue Ridge Water and Utilities department) was extremely impressed because of his water knowledge, and we’re really working on our policies and procedures, so she felt like he would be very beneficial to us in getting those standards to where they need to be,” Mayor Whitener continued.

So who is James A. Balli?

According to Balli’s resume, he received a B.S. in political science from Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1996 and later received his Juris Doctorate from the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University in 1999. Also in 1999, Balli was admitted to the State Bar of Georgia and in 2000 was admitted to the State Bar of Alabama.

Balli served in the United States Air Force Reserve from 1992 to 2000 at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

Balli currently serves as commissioner on the seven-member Judicial Qualifications Commission of Georgia, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct of all judges in the state of Georgia. He also currently serves as a board member of the Kennesaw State University Masters of Public Administration Advisory Board where he provides advice and direction to masters’ program students and faculty. Balli has been admitted to practice before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals, the Georgia Court of Appeals, the Alabama Supreme Court, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, the Middle Districts of Georgia and Alabama, and the Northern District of Georgia.

Among his recent experience, Balli represented the Atlanta Braves during the organization’s recent move from Fulton County to Cobb County, and his other recent clients have included (David) Ralston for Representative, Inc., BrandsMart USA, and the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners.

Balli is a partner at the Marietta law firm Sams, Larkin, Huff & Balli, LLP, which has represented both county governments on related development issues and commercial and private interests on a variety of issues involving elected officials from state, county and municipal governments.

Commenting on his new position with the city, Balli stated, “I am honored to have the opportunity to serve the citizens of Blue Ridge and to work with the mayor and city council as they work to serve the citizens as well. I think Blue Ridge is the best small town in the state of Georgia, and I am excited to be a part of it moving forward.”

Continue to follow FetchYourNews as we plan to produce a six-month financial comparison of the previous city attorney fees to that of the current city attorney in mid-July.

 

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.

Hundreds gather for Fannin County Senior Homestead Exemption town hall

Politics

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – The crowd spilled into the hall outside the Jury Assembly Room of the Fannin County Courthouse for a town hall meeting addressing a potential Homestead Property Tax Exemption for seniors Thursday, Nov. 16, as hundreds attended, mostly to oppose the exemption.

The change would exempt Fannin property owners 65 and older from paying the school property tax.

The meeting began with brief addresses from Georgia House Speaker and Fannin County resident David Ralston and Georgia State Senator Steve Gooch who were present to hear arguments for and against the exemption.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston attended a town hall meeting Thursday night over a potential school tax exemption for Fannin seniors.

Ralston explained the exemption would have to pass with a two-thirds majority vote in both the Georgia House of Representatives and State Senate before being placed on the ballot for the 2018 Fannin County General Election. The speaker added neither he nor Senator Gooch had come to a position yet concerning the potential change for Fannin taxpayers.

“It’s a big issue,” Ralston said at the town hall, “and big issues have big consequences. Consequences for people that are on fixed incomes having to pay property taxes that are seniors and big consequences for our public schools here in the county.”

Senator Gooch told of his experience with the exemption during his tenure as Sole Commissioner of Lumpkin County. “I warned people at the time that there were good and bad consequences to legislation like that, and I hope whatever happens here in Fannin County, people will get the facts before they make their decisions on whether they support something or not support something.”

Gooch stated he was not in favor of property taxes and would like to see a shift to a consumption tax to allow property tax relief for all taxpayers. The senator also stated, “Every time you create an exemption for any kind of a tax, you’re shifting the burden to everyone else that’s not getting these exemptions.”

State Senator Steve Gooch heard arguments for and against a potential senior school tax exemption Thursday night.

Following Gooch was Blake Doss, policy analyst for the Georgia House Budget and Research office. Doss gave a short presentation and told that Fannin has a population of 6,523 age 65 and older, which accounts for approximately 26 percent of the county’s total population of 24,985. Doss also said the local school system received $18,501,250 (55 percent) of its 2016-17 revenue from property taxes while the remainder derived from state and federal funding.

Doss estimated a senior tax exemption would shift the burden to 40 to 45 percent of the county population. Later, Doss also said 33 to 35 percent of the county’s population would fall under the exemption eligibility in the next few years. He further stated the county currently has two tax exemptions in place available for seniors. One such exemption, Doss said, gives taxpayers 62 and older an up to $30,000 exemption of their 40 percent assessed property if they meet income qualifications. Another, again based on income qualifications, provides a property valuation freeze for taxpayers 70 and older.

The overwhelming majority of citizens in attendance opposed the issue as evidenced by wearing bright orange stickers reading “Support Education.”

Among those, Rita VanOrsdal stated, “Without adequate funding, schools will send (students) out less prepared … I believe that cutting my age group’s taxes will do nothing but denigrate the quality of education of those coming after.”

Mike Queen, former Fannin School Board chairman, said he understood both arguments concerning the issue but added the exemption would put a burden on younger taxpayers and families. “I pay a hefty tax … Every dollar I spend on education is an investment in the future of this county,” Queen said.

Current Fannin School Superintendent Dr. Michael Gwatney informed the audience Fannin County spends more per capita on students -$10,923.20 per student – than the state average – $9,020.46 – despite having the sixth lowest school millage rate in the state (11.23 mills). According to Gwatney, the state average for school millage rates is 16.36 mills. Gwatney estimates Fannin County Schools would lose $1.4 million dollars annually if the exemption is passed.

“Education is an investment, and it’s a good investment,” Gwatney said.

Gwatney also alluded to the struggles Gilmer County Schools have had since that county instituted a similar exemption in recent years. “History has a tendency to repeat itself. The showing in this room tonight does not want to repeat the history of Gilmer County,” Gwatney said.

Chief Executive Officer of Fannin Regional Hospital David Sanders also opposed the exemption and explained that the exemption would affect more than just the school system. Sanders stated during his seven years as CEO of the hospital he has recruited over 25 new physicians.

“Every time I recruit a new physician here, the first question they ask is ‘What’s the school system like?'” Sanders said. “And every time it is a privilege to be able to say we’ve got one of the best public school systems in the country.”

Another exemption opponent told Ralston and Gooch, “I feel like our opinion has been voiced … and if our opinion has not been voiced and (the exemption) makes it to the ballot, that will be on the same ballot as the election you guys will be campaigning for.”

Among those in favor of the senior exemption was Fannin County citizen Jim Klack who explained he had lived in Fannin for over 20 years and in that time has paid approximately $100,000 in school taxes. Klack added he currently pays $500 a month in school taxes.

“I’m 85 years old. When do I get any (tax) relief?” Klack asked. “I support the schools and I give them money, but I should not be paying school taxes – $500 a month – when I’m 85  years old and never had a kid in school in Fannin County.”

Also, Klack said 28 counties in Georgia offered a senior tax exemption for taxpayers 65 and older.

Another supporter of the exemption pointed out the majority of opponents and claimed older taxpayers were not notified of the town hall meeting to the same level of publicity that opponents of the exemption were.

To this, Speaker Ralston told the lady he had sent out personal letters over the last two weeks to supporters of the exemption for whom he had contact information, inviting their attendance and participation, and also sent out proper notifications to newspapers informing all residents of the meeting.

In a follow-up interview with Ralston, the speaker described the meeting as “very helpful and very spirited” and said he saw “intense feelings on both sides of the issue.”

“There are certain issues that a community needs to have a discussion about,” Ralston said, “and this meeting helped me to gauge the sense of the community on this exemption.”

The speaker added that he and Senator Gooch would take their time to digest what was said at the town hall before moving forward with the senior tax exemption.

Continue to follow FetchYourNews for more on the status of the senior tax exemption.

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.

Official Trout Festival of Georgia Returns to Celebrate Trout Fishing in the Trout Capital of Georgia

Community

Blue Ridge Trout Fest

 Official Trout Festival of Georgia Returns to Celebrate Trout Fishing in the Trout Capital of Georgia (Jan. 11, 2017)

BLUE RIDGE, GA – The official Trout Festival of Georgia returns to Blue Ridge this spring when thousands of outdoors enthusiasts descend upon Georgia’s top trout-fishing destination – Fannin County, the Trout Capital of Georgia – to benefit cold-water education, service, conservation and recreation in North Georgia via the mission of Blue Ridge Mountain Trout Unlimited Chapter 696. “The Festival is built around the fact that Fannin County has become a trout-fishing destination for fishermen from all over the nation,” says House Speaker David Ralston (representative, 7th District) about the Blue Ridge Trout Festival & Outdoor Adventures event, April 28-29, in Blue Ridge, Georgia. In 2016 Ralston led the effort behind House Resolution 1039 that gave the Festival its official status when the declaration was passed by the Georgia Legislature.

Click Below for Complete Press Release

press release 01-11-2017

Blue Ridge Trout 2

Author

Local Residents, Elected Officials and GDOT Comment on Hwy. 5 Improvement Project

News

GDOT’s Oct. 19th public hearing on the Hwy. 5 Improvement and McCaysville Truck Bypass began at 4 pm.  By 5:30, GDOT already had a count of 354 attendees and the hearing still had two and one-half hours to go.  GDOT did not give any formal announcements during the public hearing.  Its role was to explain the project and listen to people’s reactions.  To explain the project, GDOT placed five large scale maps of the roads’ routes throughout West Fannin Elementary School gymnasium.  It also gave a handout containing GDOT contact numbers, project information and route maps to attendees. Altogether, GDOT brought 17 staff connected to the project to listen to the public and answer questions. GDOT also collected written comments and attendee’s verbal comments.

FetchYourNews caught up with various attendees – homeowners, elected officials and GDOT employees – to hear their comments about the Hwy. 5 project.  To read specifics about the project, please see accompanying article “GDOT Unveils Hwy. 5 Improvement Project”.

Fannin Residents

Joyce Mitchell (yellow) and Laney Mason (grey)

Joyce Mitchell (yellow) and Laney Mason (grey)

Joyce Mitchell – Mitchell came to find out information for herself and her son.  Mitchell lives in Epworth and travels Hwy. 5 nearly every day.  Mitchell’s son has a home on Blue Ridge Drive.  Mitchell said it will be nice to have the highway widened because there is a real need.  Her concerns are over what property will be purchased and how close the road will be to her son’s front door.  Mitchell  also commented that the satellite images GDOT is using for maps are too old because they don’t show buildings like Dollar General and Nicholson Tire.

John and Laney Mason – John Mason came with two ideas in mind.  He is not pro- or anti-road; he just doesn’t want to be “hoo-dooed” by the government during road construction.  The Mason’s bought property between the Insurance Mart and Abernathy’s Furniture two years ago for $200,000.  Mason wants to make sure they can get their money’s worth out of the property.  Laney Mason has a slightly different take on the construction.  She enjoys watching the wildlife – deer, bears, coyotes and beautiful rabbits when she sits on the front porch to her house.  She wonders how road construction will affect how the animals show up at her house.

 

 

Sam and Donna Walker

Sam and Donna Walker

Sam and Donna Walker – The Walkers live off George Curtis Rd.  Sam Walker is the owner of Alpha Surveying Group.  His work requires him to travel north and south on Hwy. 5 all the time.  Walker said that the highway improvement, especially the McCaysville/Copperhill bypass, will free up travel time.  Walker is waiting until GDOT has its firm and actual plans before commenting on how Hwy. 5 improvements will affect his daily life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elected Officials

Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee and House Speaker David Ralston

Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee and House Speaker David Ralston

Larry Jo Sosebee, Post-Two Commissioner – “As soon as we break dirt, I’ll believe it.  I remember my parents talking about it (Hwy. 5 widening).”

House Speaker David Ralston – “It’s not a matter of me wanting to get the project for the district.  There has been community interest in this for over 25 years,” said Ralston.  He reiterated what GDOT was telling all attendees, that the current route design is a proposal and not a definite plan. The definite plan will be the outcome of public comments and future hearings.

FetchYourNews asked Ralston about adding a stoplight to the intersection of Tom Boyd Road and Hwy. 5.  Safety concerns about this intersection have been brought up in Board of Commissioners meetings this year.  Ralston said he supports the request for a stoplight at Tom Boyd Road and has expressed this to GDOT and asked them to make a consideration for the Tom Boyd Hwy. 5 intersection.

 

 

 

State Senator Steve Gooch and Chair-Elect Stan Helton

State Senator Steve Gooch and Chair-Elect Stan Helton

State Senator Steve Gooch – Gooch has been hearing about Hwy. 5 since before he was a State Senator.  Gooch served on the State Transportation Board which oversees GDOT and state-wide road improvements before becoming State Senator.  Gooch said that the Hwy. 5 project is primarily safety improvement which will also have a positive impact on jobs and businesses in the community.  Gooch continued that Hwy. 5 is one of the busiest routes in the county and needs intersection improvements along the way.  Gooch encouraged residents to give GDOT information about the roads’ route because residents have information about specifics, like graveyards or intersection improvements, that GDOT doesn’t have.

Board of Commissioners Chair-Elect Stan Helton – Helton would also like to see a light at Tom Boyd Road.  He recounted passing through the intersection one day and seeing the look of “sheer terror” on a mother’s face as she, with her young child strapped in the car seat in back, was trying to turn onto Hwy. 5.

 

 

Georgia Department of Transportation

Mohamed Arafa

Mohamed Arafa

Mohamed Arafa, GDOT Public Relations Manager for the Hwy. 5 project – Over and over again Arafa stated that nothing has been set in stone. GDOT really wants public involvement in the planning process and public involvement makes a big difference in a project’s outcome because “Fannin residents are the best to express what serves them better.”  Arafa added, “GDOT strongly believes that the project belongs to the public.

The Hwy. 5 project serves two purposes, to enhance safety and support Georgia’s economy said Arafa. Speaking about the McCaysville Truck Bypass, Arafa said that most of the trucks that currently go through McCaysville is not for McCaysville, it is for destinations beyond McCaysville.  The bypass will ease congestion within McCaysville and make the city safer for pedestrians.

Arafa emphasized that GDOT wants to minimize impact of roads on social resources, like community integrity and historic locations, and natural resources, like trout streams, noise level and air quality.  Each transportation project conducts environmental studies about these concerns and welcomes the public’s input about environmental impact said Arafa.

 

Nicole Law

Nicole Law

Nicole Law, GDOT Project Manager for Hwy. 5 Improvement and McCaysville Truck Bypass – Law will be overseeing the project both from her office in Atlanta and on the ground in Fannin County.  Her responsibility is to keep the project moving and on schedule.  Law says that GDOT will be communicating general information about the project timeline and property purchases through its website.  Residents can contact Law at 404-631-1723.

Law said that she and GDOT won’t be able to give any specifics about property purchase until a year or more from now.  Property owners will be informed through letters and phone calls. Law’s phone

 

Aaron Burgess, GDOT Environmental Analyst for the Hwy. 5 project – Burgess is responsible for putting together a synopsis of the ecology, history, archeology, cultural assessment, air quality and noise impact for areas affected by the project.  Burgess said that residents who are concerned about the routes’ passage through historic property or other environmental concerns should contact him.  Burgess’ phone number is 404-631-1159.

 

At this time, no other public hearings are scheduled.  After the public comment period closes, GDOT will compile comments and GDOT’s answers to the comments.  Then, Law will determine if and when more public hearings will be held.

A large scale map of the project is on display at Fannin County Chamber of Commerce.  There is not any map on display at the Fannin County Court House or McCaysville City Hall. To view the map online, go to  http://www.dot.ga.gov/PS/Public/PublicOutreach. Once on the page, search projects by county, choose Fannin County, click on SR 5 Improvements and McCaysville Truck Bypass.  There are several maps.  One shows road width, one the entire project and one concentrates more on the bypass.

There are two ways you can make public comments. One, go to  http://www.dot.ga.gov/PS/Public/PublicOutreach. Once on the page, search projects by county, choose Fannin County, click on SR 5 Improvements and McCaysville Truck Bypass.  The comment option appears in small green letters above the project details.  You can also send comments by mail.  Address comments to

Mr. Eric Duff, State Environmental Administrator

Georgia Department of Transportation

Office of Environmental Services

16th Floor

One Georgia Center

600 West Peachtree Street, N.W.

Atlanta, GA 30308

 

FetchYourNews will give an analysis of the comments and GDOT’s response when those become available. GDOT believes this will be by mid-November.

 

 

 

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FCHS Vows to Crush Carrollton High School in Political Competition

Community, Rebel's Corner No Comments on FCHS Vows to Crush Carrollton High School in Political Competition 101

Student Ambassadors Amanda McDaniels, Isabel Wanner and Logan Fitts with the Fannin County School Board.

 

In a bruising upset last year, first place Fannin County High School was trounced by  Carrollton High School at the last minute. Up until the last day of competition, FCHS was ahead by 18,000 points.  On that day, Carrollton High School dumped 48,000 points into their coffers, beating FCHS by 30,000 points.  Carrollton High School (take a glimpse of the Carrollton team here) had a slight lead going into the competition. At 1,526 students, it has 546 more students than FCHS’ 980.  As you can see by the scores, in this game, numbers are everything.

The two high schools are competing with around 100 schools state-wide in the Georgia Secretary of State Student Ambassadors.  Teams earn points through civic participation and voter registration.  Last year, FCHS Student Ambassadors attended local government meetings, observed at polls, registered voters, and visited the General Assembly.

Student Ambassador Logan Fitts said Speaker Ralston is a big help and a big fan.  “Last year he recognized us as outstanding Georgia citizens.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher in this game. Teens learn how individual actions influence local and state governments.  They learn how street potholes get fixed.  And, this November, teens will vote on whether potholes will get fixed when they vote on SPLOST 2016.  In 15 years, they could be the ones deciding what goes on Fannin County’s  SPLOST 2031.

“We are going to take ‘em down,” said Student Ambassador Amanda McDaniels.  Their strategy is being involved in lots of meeting, volunteering and community events.  The team is  looking for more community partners that they can work with to earn points.

Most of FCHS Student Ambassadors are seniors.  They are recruiting juniors and sophomores to create an FCHS dynasty in the Secretary of State’s Student Ambassador’s Program.

 

 

 

 

 

Author

City of Blue Ridge Awarded $500,000 Grant
 for Water System Improvements

News
Press Release from Speaker David Ralston’s office
ATLANTA — Speaker of the House David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) announced that the City of Blue Ridge has been awarded a $500,000 grant to make improvements to its public water system. The grant award is made through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Georgia’s Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG).
“Blue Ridge is one of Georgia’s great small towns and it continually attracts new visitors and residents each year,” said Speaker David Ralston. “This grant will go toward maintaining and improving our public water system, and I appreciate the work of state officials and local partners in making this possible.”
The grant will fund water improvements in the Orchard Boulevard Neighborhood and will benefit more than 150 people. The project includes looping dead end water lines, installation of the new six-inch PVC water main, fire hydrants, valves, meters, and service connections.
“As Blue Ridge continues to grow and prosper, we are constantly planning for the future and making strategic investments in our infrastructure,” said Blue Ridge Mayor Donna Whitener. “By working with state and federal partners, we leverage our investment and improve the quality of life for our residents.”
This CBDG grant is one of 68 awarded to communities across the state this week. Georgia’s CDBG program annually supports projects in small and rural communities that create jobs. Awards will be used for specific projects such as water, sewer, drainage or street improvements, revitalization of targeted neighborhoods, and construction of facilities such as health, youth and senior centers.

 

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Commissioners Vote to Table Project Chimps’ Application to House 80 Chimpanzees in Fannin County

News

At their August 9th meeting, Fannin County Board of Commissioners discussed  Project Chimps’ application to bring 80 chimpanzees to live in its sanctuary in Fannin County.  The chimpanzees are to arrive in groups of nine to ten over the next year.  In all, Project Chimps will bring approximately 240 chimpanzees over a period of five years.

The Commissioners must approve Project Chimps’ application for exotic animals before the animals can arrive in Fannin County.  According to Fannin County’s Wild and Exotic Animals Ordinance:  “ In the event that the Fannin County Board of Commissioners determines that such a facility cannot be operated within  Fannin County, Georgia, in a manner to insure the health, safety and well-being of the citizens of this County, then the Board of Commissioners shall have the right to reject said application.  The decision of the Board of Commissioners in any individual case, shall be final.”

The Commissioners voted to review the application at the next County Commissioners’ meeting on August 23rd at 6 pm in the Fannin County Courthouse.

The Commissioners’ actions came as a great surprise to Fannin residents, Project Chimps and national organizations that have been pushing for the retirement of New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzee population.  New Iberia Research Center, operated by the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, currently houses the chimpanzees.

Project Chimps arrived at the Commissioners’ meeting expecting to give a presentation to the Commissioners before they voted on the application.  Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson said he understood Project Chimps had obtained legal counsel.   Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps, stated that they had obtained David Ralston as a consultant, not as their attorney.  David Ralston represents Georgia’s 7th District, which includes Fannin County, and is Speaker of the House for Georgia General Assembly. Chairman Simonds said, “I don’t know if we can vote on it yet.”  Mr. Johnson then asked County Attorney Lynn Doss what the appropriate procedures would be for speaking with Project Chimps during the meeting.  Ms. Doss confirmed that the Commissioners need to send comments to her and she will pass the comments on Mr. Ralston.  Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee stated he felt Project Chimps’ obtaining representation by Mr. Ralston was a push to get us [the Commissioners] to vote.

However, during Public Commentary and Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners openly discussed Project Chimps with the organization and Fannin residents in attendance.

Project Chimps’ President and CEO, Sara Baeckler Davis, spoke second during Public Commentary.  She did not give her prepared presentation.  Ms. Baeckler Davis did, though, give an overview of Project Chimps and how it impacts Fannin County.  She spoke about safety measures in place and how the facility will provide jobs and educational opportunities for Fannin residents.  She said that Project Chimps has been overwhelmed by public support from the community.

Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps

Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps

Ms. Baeckler Davis said that before coming in front of the County Commissioner, she wanted to have her federal and state permits in place since the Commission could not vote on her application without the two permits.  On July 8th, Project Chimps obtained the United States Department of Agriculture permit and on July 25, it obtained the Georgia Division of Natural Resources permit.

Chad Bowers, owner of Better Building Systems, Inc. in Blue Ridge, was the first Fannin resident to speak.  He is the General Contractor for Project Chimps.  He stated that the organization has already brought $200,000 into his Fannin County business and he estimates around $200,000 more in the near future.

Fannin resident Jan Eaton spoke next.  She pressured the Commissioners to be transparent in “what the big hold up is.” She stated that she had visited the “remarkable facility” and it is a “remarkable thing for the community.”  She finished with, “What is the big problem?”

Next up was a neighbor of Project Chimps, Dawn di Lorenzo. Ms. Di Lorenzo lives on Loving Road, which is close to Project Chimps’ facility on Lowery Road.  She said she is delighted the project will be in the community and she wasn’t aware there was any downside.  Janice Hayes of the Cohutta Animal Clinic and Gary Steverson, owner of Blue Ridge Cotton Company, also spoke in favor of Project Chimps.

Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps

Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps

Next up was Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps.  He stated he has over 40 years’ experience re-socializing and integrating groups of chimpanzees.  His last full-time position was for five years as Great Ape Behavioral Consultant at Kumamoto Sanctuary which is part of Kyoto University in Japan.

No one spoke against Project Chimps during Public Commentary.

During the Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners questioned Ms. Baeckler Davis and also gave comments about the project, even though they stated earlier in the meeting that they would not make public comment, but pass all information through County Attorney Lynn Doss.

First off was Commission Chair Bill Simonds.  The direction of his questions was about the long-term funding sources for Project Chimps.  He said he understands that Project Chimps wants to bring 240 individuals that have a life span of 40-60 years. Mr. Simonds said that it was one long commitment and in 40 years people in this room won’t be around to worry about it. Ms. Baeckler Davis affirmed that the organization is not receiving any federal or state grants.  However, the organization is receiving donations from private individuals, other non-profits, and New Iberia Research Center is also contributing money as part of its contract to retire the chimps at the sanctuary.

Ms. Baeckler Davis also reminded the Commissioners about the timeline for arrival of all 240 chimpanzees.  The chimpanzees will arrive in social groups of 9 to 10 animals at a time.  The application is for 80 chimpanzees because that is what the facility can accommodate at this time.  Later groups will move in as the facility expands, which will take a total of five years.  She also said that the chimpanzees must have health certification, which, according to federal regulations can only occur one-month prior to transportation from Louisiana to Georgia.

At the end of his comments about the application, Mr. Simonds stated that he did not want Fannin county residents to be stuck with caring for the chimpanzees because donations to Project Chimps ran dry.

Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee was next.  His line of questioning was about the health of the animals.  First, he wanted to know if the chimpanzees are newly-arrived from Africa.  Then he questioned about what kind of biomedical research the chimpanzees were used for while they were at New Iberia Research Center.  Ms. Baeckler Davis did not answer this questions.  But, she did say that to pass health inspection, which each animal must have before coming to Fannin County, a veterinarian must state that the animals are healthy and not carriers of disease communicable to humans.  Also, the chimpanzees must have rabies, tetanus, pneumonia and tuberculosis vaccines.  She said Project Chimps’ application contained a letter from the attending veterinarian at New Iberia Research Center confirming the animals are free of communicable disease and have had required vaccinations.  She reminded the Commissioners that the chimpanzees also have USDA and Georgia DNR permits.

Next, Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson “wanted to clear the air.”  He said that this (Aug. 9th) evening was the first time he had received information about Project Chimps and he received it at 5:15, 45 minutes before the meeting.  He said that the only communication that has been done was through County Attorney Lynn Doss and she doesn’t vote.  He also doesn’t want his vote to be a knee-jerk reaction.

In balance to Mr. Johnson’s statements, FetchYourNews reports FetchYourNews reports that a formal announcement of Project Chimps was not made until early May 2016 because negotiations between Project Chimps and New Iberia Research Center had not yet been completed. Then in early May, newswire sources like the Associated Press carried stories about New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzees moving to Fannin County.  This was publicized by other media outlets.

Project Chimps' team meets with Fannin County EMA.

Project Chimps’ team meets with Fannin County EMA.

Project Chimps met with Fannin County Emergency Management Agency in early summer to discuss safety at the facility. Project Chimps formally applied for the exotic animal permit on July 15, 2016. And, Project Chimps’ Open House on June 25th had over 300 attendees and was well-covered in local media.

Open House attendees listen to Ms. Baekler Davis describe the facility.

Open House attendees listen to Ms. Baekler Davis describe the facility.

FetchYourNews also asked Marie Woody, the Chief Land Development Officer for Fannin County, when she was able to officially inform the Commissioners about the arrival of Project Chimps.  Ms. Woody said that Project Chimps delivered their building permit application in late afternoon on Friday, July 15th and she informed Commission Chairman Bill Simonds and County Attorney Lynn Doss on Monday morning, July 18th.

Then, Mr. Johnson went on to list his concerns.  First and foremost are his concerns about security; can chimpanzees escape the facility or uninvited humans or animals get in?  He also wanted to know if security barriers will hold up if a tree falls on them.  Another concern is what biomedical tests the chimps were involved in and if this can pass to humans through birds or squirrels which will get into the open-air space.  He stated that Robert Graham, Director of Fannin County Emergency Management Agency, should be involved in the decision.  He said we should have started talking about this three months ago.

FetchYourNews reports that the facility Project Chimps owns was donated by Dewar Wildlife Trust, which ran the facility as Gorilla Haven. It housed 1-4 male gorillas, most notably Zoo Atlanta’s Willie B. Jr. and Jasiri.  The gorillas are no longer there and the facility has been retro-fitted to house chimpanzees.  Security walls and fences from the gorilla facility remain.  There are is no publicly available record of Gorilla Haven’s gorillas transmitting illness to humans in Fannin County, nor is there any record of escape.

Finally, Mr. Simonds commented on Project Chimps again.  He said, “We want anything that will benefit Fannin County, but we have to answer to taxpayers.”  He also said that the Commissioners received two calls from residents living in My Mountain complaining that Project Chimps will cause their property value to go down.  My Mountain borders the west side of the Project Chimps facility. He ended with, “We (the Commissioners) are not going to rush into anything.”

 

Fannin County Board of Commissioners Meeting, August 9, 2016 

 

 

This is the first in a series of articles FetchYourNews is writing about Project Chimps.  In the next article, FetchYourNews interviews Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management and Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps.  Following articles will examine Commissioners worries about safety, health and funding in comparison to national data and Project Chimps’ facility.

 

This article has been updated from the previous version published on August 13.

 

 

 

 

Author

Commissioners Vote to Table Project Chimps’ Application to House 80 Chimpanzees in Fannin County

News

At their August 9th meeting, Fannin County Board of Commissioners discussed  Project Chimps’ application to bring 80 chimpanzees to live in its sanctuary in Fannin County.  The chimpanzees are to arrive in groups of nine to ten over the next year.  In all, Project Chimps will bring approximately 240 chimpanzees over a period of five years.

The Commissioners must approve Project Chimps’ application for exotic animals before the animals can arrive in Fannin County.  According to Fannin County’s Wild and Exotic Animals Ordinance:  “ In the event that the Fannin County Board of Commissioners determines that such a facility cannot be operated within  Fannin County, Georgia, in a manner to insure the health, safety and well-being of the citizens of this County, then the Board of Commissioners shall have the right to reject said application.  The decision of the Board of Commissioners in any individual case, shall be final.”

The Commissioners voted to review the application at the next County Commissioners’ meeting on August 23rd at 6 pm in the Fannin County Courthouse.

The Commissioners’ actions came as a great surprise to Fannin residents, Project Chimps and national organizations that have been pushing for the retirement of New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzee population.  New Iberia Research Center, operated by the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, currently houses the chimpanzees.

Project Chimps arrived at the Commissioners’ meeting expecting to give a presentation to the Commissioners before they voted on the application.  Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson said he understood Project Chimps had obtained legal counsel.   Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps, stated that they had obtained David Ralston as a consultant, not as their attorney.  David Ralston represents Georgia’s 7th District, which includes Fannin County, and is Speaker of the House for Georgia General Assembly. Chairman Simonds said, “I don’t know if we can vote on it yet.”  Mr. Johnson then asked County Attorney Lynn Doss what the appropriate procedures would be for speaking with Project Chimps during the meeting.  Ms. Doss confirmed that the Commissioners need to send comments to her and she will pass the comments on Mr. Ralston.  Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee stated he felt Project Chimps’ obtaining representation by Mr. Ralston was a push to get us [the Commissioners] to vote.

However, during Public Commentary and Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners openly discussed Project Chimps with the organization and Fannin residents in attendance.

Project Chimps’ President and CEO, Sara Baeckler Davis, spoke second during Public Commentary.  She did not give her prepared presentation.  Ms. Baeckler Davis did, though, give an overview of Project Chimps and how it impacts Fannin County.  She spoke about safety measures in place and how the facility will provide jobs and educational opportunities for Fannin residents.  She said that Project Chimps has been overwhelmed by public support from the community.

Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps

Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps

Ms. Baeckler Davis said that before coming in front of the County Commissioner, she wanted to have her federal and state permits in place since the Commission could not vote on her application without the two permits.  On July 8th, Project Chimps obtained the United States Department of Agriculture permit and on July 25, it obtained the Georgia Division of Natural Resources permit.

Chad Bowers, owner of Better Building Systems, Inc. in Blue Ridge, was the first Fannin resident to speak.  He is the General Contractor for Project Chimps.  He stated that the organization has already brought $200,000 into his Fannin County business and he estimates around $200,000 more in the near future.

Fannin resident Jan Eaton spoke next.  She pressured the Commissioners to be transparent in “what the big hold up is.” She stated that she had visited the “remarkable facility” and it is a “remarkable thing for the community.”  She finished with, “What is the big problem?”

Next up was a neighbor of Project Chimps, Dawn di Lorenzo. Ms. Di Lorenzo lives on Loving Road, which is close to Project Chimps’ facility on Lowery Road.  She said she is delighted the project will be in the community and she wasn’t aware there was any downside.  Janice Hayes of the Cohutta Animal Clinic and Gary Steverson, owner of Blue Ridge Cotton Company, also spoke in favor of Project Chimps.

Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps

Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps

Next up was Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps.  He stated he has over 40 years’ experience re-socializing and integrating groups of chimpanzees.  His last full-time position was for five years as Great Ape Behavioral Consultant at Kumamoto Sanctuary which is part of Kyoto University in Japan.

No one spoke against Project Chimps during Public Commentary.

During the Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners questioned Ms. Baeckler Davis and also gave comments about the project, even though they stated earlier in the meeting that they would not make public comment, but pass all information through County Attorney Lynn Doss.

First off was Commission Chair Bill Simonds.  The direction of his questions was about the long-term funding sources for Project Chimps.  He said he understands that Project Chimps wants to bring 240 individuals that have a life span of 40-60 years. Mr. Simonds said that it was one long commitment and in 40 years people in this room won’t be around to worry about it. Ms. Baeckler Davis affirmed that the organization is not receiving any federal or state grants.  However, the organization is receiving donations from private individuals, other non-profits, and New Iberia Research Center is also contributing money as part of its contract to retire the chimps at the sanctuary.

Ms. Baeckler Davis also reminded the Commissioners about the timeline for arrival of all 240 chimpanzees.  The chimpanzees will arrive in social groups of 9 to 10 animals at a time.  The application is for 80 chimpanzees because that is what the facility can accommodate at this time.  Later groups will move in as the facility expands, which will take a total of five years.  She also said that the chimpanzees must have health certification, which, according to federal regulations can only occur one-month prior to transportation from Louisiana to Georgia.

At the end of his comments about the application, Mr. Simonds stated that he did not want Fannin county residents to be stuck with caring for the chimpanzees because donations to Project Chimps ran dry.

Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee was next.  His line of questioning was about the health of the animals.  First, he wanted to know if the chimpanzees are newly-arrived from Africa.  Then he questioned about what kind of biomedical research the chimpanzees were used for while they were at New Iberia Research Center.  Ms. Baeckler Davis did not answer this questions.  But, she did say that to pass health inspection, which each animal must have before coming to Fannin County, a veterinarian must state that the animals are healthy and not carriers of disease communicable to humans.  Also, the chimpanzees must have rabies, tetanus, pneumonia and tuberculosis vaccines.  She said Project Chimps’ application contained a letter from the attending veterinarian at New Iberia Research Center confirming the animals are free of communicable disease and have had required vaccinations.  She reminded the Commissioners that the chimpanzees also have USDA and Georgia DNR permits.

Next, Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson “wanted to clear the air.”  He said that this (Aug. 9th) evening was the first time he had received information about Project Chimps and he received it at 5:15, 45 minutes before the meeting.  He said that the only communication that has been done was through County Attorney Lynn Doss and she doesn’t vote.  He also doesn’t want his vote to be a knee-jerk reaction.

In balance to Mr. Johnson’s statements, FetchYourNews reports FetchYourNews reports that a formal announcement of Project Chimps was not made until early May 2016 because negotiations between Project Chimps and New Iberia Research Center had not yet been completed. Then in early May, newswire sources like the Associated Press carried stories about New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzees moving to Fannin County.  This was publicized by other media outlets.

Project Chimps' team meets with Fannin County EMA.

Project Chimps’ team meets with Fannin County EMA.

Project Chimps met with Fannin County Emergency Management Agency in early summer to discuss safety at the facility. Project Chimps formally applied for the exotic animal permit on July 15, 2016. And, Project Chimps’ Open House on June 25th had over 300 attendees and was well-covered in local media.

Open House attendees listen to Ms. Baekler Davis describe the facility.

Open House attendees listen to Ms. Baekler Davis describe the facility.

FetchYourNews also asked Marie Woody, the Chief Land Development Officer for Fannin County, when she was able to officially inform the Commissioners about the arrival of Project Chimps.  Ms. Woody said that Project Chimps delivered their building permit application in late afternoon on Friday, July 15th and she informed Commission Chairman Bill Simonds and County Attorney Lynn Doss on Monday morning, July 18th.

Then, Mr. Johnson went on to list his concerns.  First and foremost are his concerns about security; can chimpanzees escape the facility or uninvited humans or animals get in?  He also wanted to know if security barriers will hold up if a tree falls on them.  Another concern is what biomedical tests the chimps were involved in and if this can pass to humans through birds or squirrels which will get into the open-air space.  He stated that Robert Graham, Director of Fannin County Emergency Management Agency, should be involved in the decision.  He said we should have started talking about this three months ago.

FetchYourNews reports that the facility Project Chimps owns was donated by Dewar Wildlife Trust, which ran the facility as Gorilla Haven. It housed 1-4 male gorillas, most notably Zoo Atlanta’s Willie B. Jr. and Jasiri.  The gorillas are no longer there and the facility has been retro-fitted to house chimpanzees.  Security walls and fences from the gorilla facility remain.  There are is no publicly available record of Gorilla Haven’s gorillas transmitting illness to humans in Fannin County, nor is there any record of escape.

Finally, Mr. Simonds commented on Project Chimps again.  He said, “We want anything that will benefit Fannin County, but we have to answer to taxpayers.”  He also said that the Commissioners received two calls from residents living in My Mountain complaining that Project Chimps will cause their property value to go down.  My Mountain borders the west side of the Project Chimps facility. He ended with, “We (the Commissioners) are not going to rush into anything.”

 

Fannin County Board of Commissioners Meeting, August 9, 2016 

 

 

This is the first in a series of articles FetchYourNews is writing about Project Chimps.  In the next article, FetchYourNews interviews Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management and Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps.  Following articles will examine Commissioners worries about safety, health and funding in comparison to national data and Project Chimps’ facility.

 

This article has been updated from the previous version published on August 13.

 

 

 

 

Author

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