BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – Fannin County Parks and Recreation Director Eddie O’Neal sought approval from the Board of Commissioners (BOC) at the Feb. 27 meeting to apply for a grant in hopes improving Horseshoe Bend Park.
“We would like to get approval to approach the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC),” O’Neal appealed to the board.
This grant is in addition to a state-funded Recreational Trail Grant that the county applied for in 2017. The state-funded grant would provide Fannin County with up to $200,000 and the county would be responsible for 20 percent of the funding ($40,000).
The additional grant would be federally funded and provide Fannin County with up to $300,000. The county would be responsible for 30 percent of this funding ($90,000).
Commission Chairman Stan Helton explained how the information of this new grant came about: “The folks at the Northwest Regional Commission, which are the folks that are conduit for the Recreational Trail Grant called me sometime ago.”
“They felt that the odds (of receiving the ARC grant) were equal to or better (than that of getting the Recreational Trail Grant),” Helton added.
Helton explained that the county would not have to take both grants if both were awarded, but applying for the two grants would improve the county’s odds of getting funding for projects at Horseshoe Bend Park.
The board unanimously voted in favor of applying for this additional grant.
O’Neal updated the BOC on news from the Recreation Department: “Our registration for spring sports is up about 8 percent.”
This increase in registration seems to be a steady pattern with the Recreation Department showing an increase in both 2016 and 2017.
The BOC was presented with bids for 2018 mowing contracts. These contracts include mowing and restroom upkeep for Horseshoe Bend and Tammen parks.
There was a total of four bids presented, with $2,200 per month being the high bid and $1,800 per month being the low bid.
O’Neal stated, “I’m fine with the lowest bid. I think if we do that, it should be a 30-day trial.”
Post 2 Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee had reservations about going with the lowest bidder: “This last mowing season, I had more complaints come through my door.”
Sosebee acknowledged that when the company who submitted the highest bid had the county’s contract he received little to no complaints.
“When you don’t hear people complaining, you know the work is good,” Sosebee added to his thoughts.
Post 1 Commissioner Earl Johnson recommended tabling the vote for the mowing contract until the companies submitting the bids could be further researched.
Helton recused himself from discussion due to having on-going business with one of the bidders, and both post commissioners agreed to discuss the contracts at a later date.
Nichole Potzauf, executive director of Blue Ridge Mountains Arts Association (BRMAA), spoke of happenings at the Art Center.
In 2017, approximately 41,000 guests enjoyed the exhibits and classes at the Art Center, and it is estimated the BRMAA had an economic impact of $618,000 in our area and $1.2 million for our region.
Currently, the Art Center is hosting Youth Art Month. Potzauf explained, “(Youth Art Month) is an annual exhibit that we host to celebrate our emerging artists. So, all of Fannin County Schools participate, as well as home school children.”
Potzauf also noted that this year Copper Basin schools are participating in the program.
The BRMAA hosts several fundraising events throughout the year, and Potzauf shared that through fundraising efforts “we were able to give $4,000 in youth scholarships to children in our area to obtain art classes and art education.”
“We’ve partnered with UNG (University of North Georgia) to do a lunch and learn series,” Potzauf spoke of what is new for BRMAA this year.
This partnering is with the UNG Appalachian Studies Program and English Department. The first Lunch and Learn will take place April 18 and will be hosted by Blue Ridge Scholars of UNG.
The first in this series will be “an artistic presentation of the poverty and resilience of the Blue Ridge mountains and our area,” according to Potzauf.
A new appointment to the Board of Assessors took place, with Helton recommending Angelina Powell to this board in place of current board member Lane Bishop.
This recommendation was met with no discussion by the post commissioners, and the board unanimously voted for Powell to receive this appointment. Powell will serve a four-year term beginning March 1, 2018.
Fannin County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Robert Graham was present to discuss the progress of the new fire station and E-911 center that is currently in the construction stage.
Graham stated that the structural portion of the project was running on time and on budget and was about a third of the way complete. Graham expects completion of this project in May or June of this year.
Fannin County Finance Director Robin Gazaway reported a summary of the county’s expenses and revenues for the month of January. Being just 8 percent into the county budget, the tax assessor’s office is showing a budget deficit.
Gazaway explained that this was expected and should even out over the next couple of months: “We had budgeted for maps and that was all paid upfront. There will be some revenues from the cities that will go against that.”
So far in 2018, the county is $775,000 under budget.
Discussion of funding for the new Fire Station 1/E-911 center was discussed during this portion of the meeting.
“We knew we would have to borrow some funds,” Helton said of the financing. “We felt that we could finance out of pocket about 75 percent.”
The other 25 percent of funding, ranging from $600,000 to $1.2 million, is currently being studied by Gazaway. While nothing has been finalized, Gazaway said that she had been speaking with bond companies for funding.
Johnson, alerted by the mention of financing through bonds, asked to speak with Gazaway immediately regarding the situation.
“I’m not in favor of getting a bond,” Johnson expressed, stern in his stance.
Johnson explained it is situations like this where he wants to see better communication taking place with the post commissioners.
Public commentary brought about questions of safety at the Fannin County Courthouse.
Epworth resident Noah Sims addressed the board on what he felt were breaches in security.
Making it clear the he was not attacking our local law enforcement, Sims addressed the security measures in place at the courthouse entrance: “I am up here as a concerned citizen. You all do not have any security in the building. Zero. It’s breached.”
Sims noted that employees often are waved through without being scanned: “When you let one person not get checked you have zero security.”
Sims would like to see policy and procedure followed for all persons entering the building without exception.
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Angie Arp’s “are we getting our money’s worth?” crusade extends beyond funding Blue Ridge Elementary School’s School Resource Officer. (see accompanying article “BRES School Resource Officer Position Eliminated in Angie Arp’s Budget Cuts”). Arp’s proposed savings is $50,000.
At the Aug. 26th Blue Ridge City Council meeting, Arp proposed and then made a motion that the City of Blue Ridge not pay its $5,000 bill to Morganton resident Rick LaRosa for his firm’s design for City Park bathrooms. Council Member Kendall concurred that the Mayor had told him that the design was free, so Council members Herndon, Pack, Arp and Kendall voted not to pay. Mayor Whitener and Council Member Thomas were not at the meeting.
In an email prior to the meeting, City Attorney David Syfan said about the contract with LaRosa, “I understood the City, at least, for Rick’s fees only had the $5,000 at risk.”
When FetchYourNews asked Mayor Whitener about the $5,000 bill, she said, “Angie got him to do the drawing. Angie knew Rick was getting $5,000 and discussed with LaRosa what the design costs would be if the city scales back the project.” Arp had told the Council that she could draw out a plan herself and arrange local contractors to build. When asked about it by FetchYourNews, Mayor Whitener responded that the bathrooms are a commercial building and are required by law to have a licensed architect to design them. Arp’s proposed savings is $5,000.
Arp proposes that she can whittle down the $1,000,000 plus East Main Street renovations by picking and choosing which parts of the project to work on. The East Main Street renovation project is set up to solve several downtown problems at one time: repairing sidewalks to meet ADA requirements and increase visual aesthetics, replacing outdated water and sewer infrastructure and paving the street. This way, downtown life will be interrupted for one time rather than many different and sporadic times. Arp’s first concern is paving the street. She did not say if infrastructure repair should occur while the street is being repaved or after the new pavement is there.
Arp is concerned about the price because she heard “3rd or 4th” hand about the project specs and what the “200 to 300” pages of the specs contain.
At the Sept. 19th City Council meeting, Arp told the Council that the way the engineering firm sets specs that are above standard and are more than what the county and state require. “We shouldn’t have to go above specs. Other counties don’t do it. [We] don’t need an engineered design.” Mayor Whitener reminded her that there are still some unresolved problems that smoke tests of the sewer system found. Council Member Rhonda Thomas said that when the project first started that the city uncovered many issues, like fire hydrants hadn’t been hooked up properly. Thomas also told Arp that an engineered design helps the city plan for different scenarios for storm water drainage.
Arp has taken it upon herself to contact Matt Smith, the engineer assigned by Carter & Sloop to oversee the project. She is negotiating with him about which parts of the project can be done away with or put off until later. It is not sure what Council motion gave her this authority. Carter & Sloope also contracts with the Fannin County government. They are currently working with Fannin County Water Authority on water lines and water main placements.
Arp’s proposed savings is up to $400,000. Potential future costs to downtown businesses and city for not making all necessary repairs is uncalculated. Arp’s actions mirror the Council’s decision to install a sprinkler system in the newly-landscaped City Park. This decision was made after the City Park was torn up, sod laid and new plantings installed.
Arp wants to reduce the cost of repaving Blue Ridge streets. The Council only received one sealed bid for the project from Johnson Paving Company for $100,000. Arp believes this is too high. Unfortunately, the Council cannot advertise for other sealed bids at this time because Arp announced in two public meetings that Johnson Paving Company submitted a $100,000 bid. This negates the possibility of advertising for more bids because now other companies know what they must bid lower than.
The City is running out of time to pave roads using state money. Each year, the DOT returns gas tax money for road repair to local governments based on the amount of road miles inside the government’s tax district. The plan was to bundle 2014 and 2015 money together to pay for East Main renovations. However, those have been continually delayed. If 2014 money is not spent by January 2017, the City loses that money. Arp’s proposed savings by not hiring Johnson Paving Company is undetermined.
A full picture of Arp’s proposed savings emerges when compared to Arp’s actions that have cost Blue Ridge taxpayers’ money.
At the Aug. 26th meeting, Arp persuaded the Council to reject a $300,000 Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant to build a restroom/welcome center at the site of the bathrooms on the corner of East Main and Church Street. This would be bundled together with $225,196 from the City, and $355,750 from SPLOST. In her argument, she incorrectly informed the Council that the city does not know if they will have $355,750 from SPLOST because it hasn’t been voted on yet. However, the $355,750 if from SPLOST 2010 and not SPLOST 2016. SPLOST funds must be spent on capital outlay projects that the voters decide on when voting for SPLOST. This money cannot be taken from one project and put onto another.
Arp also added that the $880,946 facility was too much. She used the same arguments as she did with the East Main Street renovations (see above), namely government grants require building specifications, vendors and contractors that end up costing much more than it would if the city arranges the project entirely on its own, without grants. She also said that the cost of submitting the grant and that the city may be forced to pay out an architecture contract for a building design it doesn’t use will leave the city with bills it can’t afford to pay.
The thing is the city had already been awarded the grant back in December 2015. The actions the Council needed to make in August were just tidying up loose ends.
In an Aug. 22nd email, Angela Steedly, the City’s grant writer and consultant, warned all Council members that the $300,000 ARC grant and future ARC grants were in jeopardy if the Council did not complete everything for the application.
Mayor Whitener validated Steedly’s statement. Whitener said that when Bill Sowers was City Clerk, the city had applied for a Community Block Development Grant (CBDG), received it, but never spent the money. CBDG officials called Sowers and told him that the city would not receive further grants because the city did not use them.
Mayor Whitener continued saying that the city needs to apply for $300,000 to $400,000 in infrastructure grants each year because of aging water infrastructure problems in the city. Blue Ridge is about to lose its funding cushion it had for water infrastructure repairs because the city must make along Church Street from the Catholic Church to behind the jail. “Not getting ARC grants will hurt residents, roads and people getting water,” said the Mayor.
House Speaker David Ralston and Blue Ridge organizations like Blue Ridge Mountains Arts Association sent in letters of support for the ARC grant. “If you start alienating those folks, you lose help, “said Mayor Whitener. Arp’s cost to the city is $300,000 plus future grants and local community and political support.
Arp, as well as other Council members, is at the center of the City Park playground debacle. Arp’s decision to rip out the newly-installed landscaping to put the playground back in its original location could cost the city $60,000.
The Vaughn-Jordon Foundation granted the City $120,000 to build a horticulture and arboretum in City Park alongside the playground. The foundation will not ask the city for the $60,000 of the grant it has already spent. However, Mayor Whitener said that the city will not receive the remaining $60,000 until park renovation is complete and acceptable to the foundation. Currently the city is not fulfilling its contractual obligations to the Vaughn-Jordon Foundation.
While the Council was deciding which end of the park the playground should go, Arp was already designing the landscaping. According to the Mayor, Arp picked out all the landscaping herself.
Arp and other Council members also tabled voting on playground equipment until it was too late for Blue Ridge Kiwanis to apply for the grant which would pay for the playground equipment. After presenting the City Park design to the public, Mayor Whitener left playground equipment magazines in City Hall so that Council members could choose which ones to buy. The members didn’t choose until Arp presented her selection of $97,000 playground equipment at the Aug. 26th City Council meeting. “If we had applied for the Kiwanis grant in 2015, we could have received $100,000 for the equipment,” said Mayor Whitener. Arp’s cost to the city, $97,000 for playground equipment plus a potential $60,000 more from unfulfilled grant obligations.
Arp’s legal expenses have also cost taxpayer money. Arp initiated the $35,105 Jarrard and Davis inquiry into the City Council to see if Mayor Whitener was a legal resident of Blue Ridge. Jarrard and Davis said she is. Jarrard and Davis also noted the “regrettable levels of unbecoming behavior by certain City’s elected officials”. The City, through its liability carrier, is also paying for Arp’s defense in the Ada Street LLC litigation.
Angie Arp, as well as all other Council members, receives $6,000 per year for her public service. The Mayor receives $8,400.
Related Posts: “Council’s Coup Affects East Main Street Improvements“
Blue Ridge City Council held a special meeting on Thursday, March 24th to finalize details of a Community Block Development Grant. This grant will provide the city with money to begin modernizing water lines in the Ridge Ave./ Orchard Blvd. area. Another grant that they worked on was details for renovating restrooms and building a welcome center next to the train depot. Specifics about a new sidewalk ordinance and sewer rate increase were also discussed.
In early April, Blue Ridge will submit a grant to obtain money to update water infrastructure within the city. The first area up for modernization is the Ridge Ave/ Orchard Blvd. area where there are narrow, galvanized water lines. The new water lines will be PVC and will be wide enough to have sufficient water pressure for fire service. Later modernizations will include sewer lines. Carter & Sloope, an engineering firm out of Canton, will oversee the project. The company engineers many infrastructure projects for both the City of Blue Ridge and Fannin County.
The city is looking to the Appalachian Regional Commission to provide grant money to assist in building a welcome center with restrooms next to the train depot. R Design Works out of Morganton, GA will be the architect. When finished, the building will have retail space that businesses can rent, a small welcome center and public restrooms.
The City Council is discussing ways to enforce a national five foot obstacle free zone required on municipal sidewalks throughout the United States. The five foot zone is from the American with Disabilities Act and is to ensure that wheelchairs, walkers and strollers can move down sidewalks without having to go out into the street to clear obstacles. The new ordinance will also affect what businesses can put on the sidewalks. Things like benches, advertising boards and flowerpots will be okay; items for sale or clothes racks will not. Obstacle free sidewalks have been a rule in Blue Ridge for some time but some businesses do not follow it. So, the City Council is looking to increase penalties for violations. Proposed penalties include first violation – warning; second violation – fine; third violation – revocation of business license.
The City Council voted to increase sewer rates in Blue Ridge. Current sewer rates are so low that the city operates in the red to pay for sewage treatment. The new rates will bring the city up to equalization between what it costs to treat sewage and how much customers pay. The first increase of $1 will be in June and the second increase of $1 will be in January 2017.
Waste Away garbage service which has been operating in Blue Ridge since last fall hasn’t paid for a business license nor given the city a percentage of profits that by law they must to be able to offer garbage services in Blue Ridge. And, now, Waste Away has decided that it wants a business license and to be one of the three garbage companies allowed in Blue Ridge. Mayor Whitener will talk with them about their shirking their responsibility to the city before any decision is made.
See Related Posts: Overcoming Obstacles on Blue Ridge Sidewalks