30-day moratorium on special use permit for alcohol license

News
special use permits

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Fannin County Commissioners opted for a 30-day moratorium on special use permits for alcohol licenses while they gather more information and the ordinance is rewritten.

When Fannin County added the alcohol permit ordinance to its official code, commissioners did not include a special use provision, but the application for a special use permit is available to the public.

The first special permit didn’t cause any issues with the county, and the sheriff’s office gave the go-ahead for the second event requesting a special use permit.

Post One Johnny Scearce asked, “Is there any liability that can fall back on the county?” County Attorney Lynn Doss stated the county wouldn’t be liable for these events.

Special event permits require hired security to be always on the scene.  Doss added she believed the requirement for special events is one off-duty officer for every 200 to 300 people.

More venues are becoming available throughout the county and a special use permit might benefit their businesses. However, parameters need to be set in place to prevent everyone from applying for a special use beer and wine permit.

County Attorney Lynn Doss doesn’t know where the application came from, she didn’t create it, nor knows how it became available to the public.

“It’s not that it’s a bad idea. It might be a great idea. It’s just that literally in our ordinance there’s no provision for it. There’s no regulation of it. If the commission feels okay with just continuing on and letting individuals make applications until we can get the ordinance rewritten, which we’re in the process of doing, that’s fine. Another idea is just to say there is a moratorium there will be no special use permits issued until the ordinance is rewritten,” Doss explained.

Since beer and wine came into the county, two special use permits have been approved for use.

Liquor sales aren’t allowed within the county, but the city can sell liquor, beer, and wine. Liquor requires a vote, and when alcohol was placed on the ballot previously, it failed. The commissioners at the time found a way around the citizen’s opinion and brought just beer and wine into the county.

police chief

Post One Johnny Scearce also serves as Blue Ridge Police Chief and has experience with alcohol regulations.

“I just think when it comes to alcohol you’ve got to have things in place that’s going to cover you. There is a lot of liability,” Scearce remarked. “Our responsibility here is to make sure we’re looking at the best interest of the people.”

Special use permits would only be for beer and wine.

Plus, if the county grants a license, the Georgia Department of Revenue still must approve a license for a business going forward.

“Willow Falls can get a permit that’s not a special event permit that would be good for a year,” Doss explained, “It has to renew every year.”

The first issuance of an alcohol license is $10,000 and the renewal is $150. It’s also tied to food sales. The markers serve as a buffer to keep people out of the market.

Chairman Jamie Hensley posed a hypothetical for a person who received their alcohol license, “I start going to different venues in the county…how is that fare that I’m able to do that when say Toccoa Restaurant had to pay $10,000 to be able to sell it…If I’m the person that gets to put on that one-time event at this location and now I can go to this location and do it again because I’ve got my license.”

Doss confirmed that a situation is something that needs to be addressed in the updated ordinance. She then cited a Supreme Court Case that stated an alcohol license is a privilege is not a right. The county can put in place different stipulations depending upon the business and use purposes.

Anyone who serves alcohol in Georgia must pass a background check, which is currently reported to the state.

A facility in Georgia can only hold 24 special use permits a year. Public parks are considered county property and will never be allowed as a location for alcohol events.

Some Fannin County restaurants would prefer that the new ordinance included Sunday beer and wine sales to compete with Blue Ridge establishments.

The updated ordinances in Fannin are in process but likely won’t be finalized till the end of the year. Ordinance updates require two public hearings before final approval as well.

In 30 days, the commissioners will decide to either extend or eliminate the moratorium. During this time, they will review all existing materials and decide on the best course forward.

May proclaimed Mental Health Awareness Month

Community, News
mental health awareness month

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Fannin County Commissioners declared May 2021 as Mental Health Awareness Month.

Members of Fannin County Connection accepted the proclamation. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans are diagnosed with a mental health condition per year. 46 percent of Americans will be diagnosable with a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime and half of those will be before the age of 14.

At this time, 44 million Americans are experiencing mental illness with 42.5 million suffering from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is one of the more prominent disorders in America.

24.6 million Americans don’t receive treatment for their mental disorders whether it’s anxiety, substance abuse, depression, bipolar, post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia, or suicidal thoughts.

Chairman Jamie Hensley and Post Two Glenn Patterson with members of Family Connection.

Chairman Jamie Hensley and Post Two Glenn Patterson with members of Family Connection.

Mental Health Awareness Month began in 1949 by Mental Health America (MHA). Each year MHA presents a theme for the month. This year it continues on the Tools2Thrive theme from 2020 and  “providing practical tools that everyone can use to improve their mental health and increase their resiliency regardless of their personal situation.”

 

 

 

The tools provided pertain to:

  • Adapting after trauma and stress
  • Dealing with anger and frustration
  • Getting out of thinking traps
  • Processing big changes
  • Taking time for yourself
  • Radical acceptance

MHA’s website offers several mental health checks and tests for anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of themselves.

More county business

Zack Ratcliff was reappointed to the Water Authority Board by Post One Johnny Scearce.

The purchase of a used trackhoe for the public works department was approved for $57,700. The used model is a K2057 with 104 hours on it. SPLOST money will be used for the purchase.

Four bids for the new 911 radio console system were received and opened. The issue was tabled for two weeks to give everyone time to review the bids.

Fannin Commissioners decide to go with new insurance broker

Board of Commissioners, News
insurance brokers

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Following a two-hour work session, the Fannin Commissioners opted to change health insurance brokers for the 2021-2022 year.

MSI Benefits Group won the business. The company previously represented the county until Total Insurance took over and ushered Fannin through its partially self-insured phase. Last year, commissioners decided to move away from a partially self-insured model to try and keep costs down.

MSI also has licensed agents who aren’t paid on commission to properly explain health insurance benefits to county employees.

“We’ve got over 60 governments that we handle insurance for and the reality of it is, we know when an increase hits, it’s very significant to our local governments. A lot of times the employees can’t bear it and we know that the governments are struggling to find the money to cover it. So, we put a lot of thought and a lot of effort into making you that we’re taking care of you guys the best we can,” MSI Representative Matt Bidwell stated.

Human Resources Director Jessie Hall explained that the insurance broker didn’t affect the plan quotes. Insurance companies would provide the same rates to any broker, depending on last year’s claims and census data.

The total cost for the county would change depending upon the broker’s compensation rates or broker fees. MSI has a 2.5 percent fee. Total Insurance was currently charging the county 5.28 percent in fees. Partners Benefit Group an affiliate of Kevin Panter Insurance didn’t provide an exact fee.

“I want something great that’s cheap for the employees of this county, “Chairman Jamie Hensley remarked. “I want good insurance, cheap for the employees of this county, and I want them to understand and feel like they’re respected now as employees instead of just something dumped in their lap.”

Total Insurance already informed Fannin insurance costs for 2021-2022 could go up anywhere between 17 and 28 percent. Last year, the county selected a plan with United Healthcare that contained Option 1 costing $2,425,182, and Option 2 costing $2,254,468.

The second tier focused on wellness incentives and provided those enrolled with a Fitbit to track their habits. It also could save families around $273 per year. However, only 52 people enrolled in option 2 out of the 176 employees enrolled.

Chairman Jamie Hensley and Post Two Glenn Patterson

Chairman Jamie Hensley and Post Two Glenn Patterson

Chairman Jamie Hensley told Total Insurance that he’d “been here since January and [he’d] hadn’t seen anything” pertaining to option 2 or the motion plan for health insurance.

The commissioners agreed that tiered options might benefit all employees based on their healthcare needs. They also wanted more information about the previous administration’s decision to put a spousal carveout and tobacco penalty in place.

Several companies instituted a working spousal carveout as costs continue to rise. If the spouse of a county employee has access to health insurance through their place of work, then they are encouraged to take that plan first. However, spouses without insurance could be added to the county plan.

As for the tobacco penalty, all three insurance brokers advocated for an incentive-based plan like an extra day off for those who stop smoking, lower blood pressure, or lose weight.

Hensley commented that he didn’t know of anyone who quit smoking because of the tobacco penalty which raised tobacco user rates by $50.

Hensley also went on the record to ask Kevin Panter if he ever promised him anything during campaign season, and Panter confirmed that he did not.

During the regular meeting, the commissioners voted on the 2021-2022 insurance broker. Post Two Glenn Patterson abstained from the vote. Hensley made the motion for MSI with the stipulation that the contract could be canceled within a certain timeframe if necessary.

MSI will present insurance plans and quotes for the 2021-2022 year.

Commissioners officially dismiss Animal Control Head

News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Following an executive session, all three Fannin County Commissioners voted to terminate Animal Control Department Head John Drullinger.

When asked about the dismissal later, Chairman Jamie Hensley stated it was time to make a change and go in a different direction.

The public began calling for Drullinger’s termination months ago. Several of those who came forward questioned if they had been personally slighted by the department head because of their opposition to his leadership style. The most recent calls for termination came on April 13, 2021.

Read more about individuals’ complaints with the former Animal Control Head here.

Since Hensley took office, the county’s been making changes to improve the animal control facilities like fixing the drainage issue inside the building, trucks now have a GPS monitoring system, new sink installed, new hours, an account for donations, and started a volunteer of the month.

Anyone interest can donate to Fannin County Animal Control on the county website.

The animal control facility was recently deep cleaned and organized on April 27. Hensley’s hopeful these positive strides forward will continue in the future.

J.R. Cornett was placed as interim head of Animal Control. He’s been with the department for more than five years.

Fannin’s also accepting applications for those who are qualified to lead Animal Control.

Blue Ridge’s Panter provides county with brief aquatic center synopsis

News
aquatic center

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Blue Ridge City Councilmember Mike Panter attended the April 27 Board of Commissioners meeting to present his idea for an aquatic and wellness center.

Though not officially on the agenda, the commissioners granted Panter time to present during public commentary. Previously, the commissioners all encouraged the city council to publicly present the idea at a county meeting.

He began by stating he wants to develop a communal space for the city, county, and school on the unused farmer’s market property. The area’s been closed for almost 12 years according to Mayor Donna Whitener.

Intended property for the building.

The proposed aquatic and wellness center would include an indoor heated pool, outdoor splash pad, two indoor gyms, indoor playground, fitness center, wellness center, two multipurpose conference rooms, and indoor/outdoor walking tracks.

Panter estimated the project will cost between $7 and $9 million since the city already owns the land – 4.91 acres. In-depth cost analysis wasn’t addressed during the meeting.

“Lot of opportunity, a lot of money that can be raised for a facility of this size. Now $7 to $8 million dollars sounds like a lot of money. If we wait 10 years from now that same facility will be $25 million based on our growth,” Panter explained, “What I’m proposing is that the city of Blue Ridge do a joint venture with the school system and the county government to see if we can use this piece of property, we’ve got sitting right here in the heart of our community.”

The project could be completed in phases. According to the handouts provided by Panter, phase one would include the main building and pool. The pool would be enclosed during phase two with PEMB and openable glass doors.

Panter commented that the center could be a profitable venture for the county, city, and school. Under the current plan, volunteers would predominately operate the facility. The city would pay for the three or four full-time employees.

“If we continue to allow our land to be developed to go high-end commercial to people outside of our community, that land’s not going to be recreated for us down the road. And one of the things I talked to the council about, I said ‘why don’t we take this facility and see if we can work with the county and school system and put something together,” Panter explained.

He added that SPLOST, LOST, hotel/motel tax, and possibly grants could pay for a portion of the project. According to the materials provided, the aquatic and wellness center might qualify as a tourism product development under Georgia Code 48-13-50.2(6)(A-P).

“And other ‘creation or expansion of physical attractions which are available and open to the public and which improves destination appeal to visitors, support visitors’ experience, and are used by visitors,’” the handout document stated.

The layout of the proposed facility

Panter offered that some new residents of Fannin look for tax deduction opportunities and residents could donate money toward the proposed facility. His materials cited Internal Revenue Service Code section 170 (c)(1) which pertains to charitable donations to governmental units for tax deductions if made for a public purpose.

As for SPLOST funds, typically, when citizens vote to approve a new SPLOST tax, it lists the proposed projects. An aquatic and wellness center wasn’t included in the latest list of SPLOST projects, but that doesn’t mean a county can’t divert funds for the effort.

However, Fannin has yet to move forward with the voter-approved administrative facility aside from purchasing Whitepath in 2019. The future of that building for administrative offices faces continued uncertainty with a public hearing scheduled for next week.

Additionally, any decision regarding Whitepath could affect the future of the library. While the library hasn’t appeared on a SPLOST vote either, the state did provide $1.3 million to the library for a capital outlay project – namely the construction of a new facility, either at Whitepath or elsewhere. There’s also a timetable associated with those state funds. Basically, the county has several big-ticket projects to consider before entering into an intergovernmental agreement with the city for something new.

The aquatic and wellness center will be discussed at a later meeting, and Panter intends to speak at a board of education meeting to gauge their support.

Panter campaigned on bringing a YMCA-like facility to Blue Ridge before being elected to city council. He’s tried to develop a similar facility since 1990.

Public hearing concerning Whitepath building on May 4

Board of Commissioners, News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – At last night’s board of commissioners meeting, Chairman Jamie Hensley announced a public hearing concerning Whitepath on May 4 at 5:30 p.m. at the courthouse.

Two weeks ago, the county released the hazardous material report. It found low levels of asbestos, mold, and lead-based paint in the building.

The report is online and the county encourages everyone to read it before next Tuesday.

Public calls for animal control reforms and leadership change

News
animal control

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Residents of Fannin County came forward to issue complaints about animal control and Julie Wooten asked for Animal Control Officer John Drullinger’s termination.

Wooten suffered a roaming dog attack at her property on January 12, 2021 and lost one of her geese to the incident.  It’s the second time a dog attacked Wooten’s geese. She estimated to have lost $12,000 because of the continued assaults.

She claimed Drullinger never responded to her phone calls even after being instructed to by Chairman Jamie Hensley. According to Wooten, she previously called nine different times about the same dog. She wanted to know why the animal control didn’t have paperwork on the dog because according to her, Drullinger picked up the dog once.

“Am I not getting my information out of spite because I have been so vocal about my displeasure with it?” she asked.

She went on to detail other encounters with Drullinger. She retold her experience of asking to adopt a dog that wasn’t fixed. Drullinger told her to go through a rescue first. However, recently another individual could adopt eight- to ten-week-old puppies. Typically, a dog is fixed between four to six months.

“Why does he get to change his rules when it suits him? That’s the issue with it, not the person to adopt the puppies but the fact that Mr. Drullinger is making up these rules as he goes.” Wooten stated.

She presented research detailing 11 roaming dog attacks last year and three required medical attention.

FYN spoke with Chairman Jamie Hensley about the accusations. He stated that the county’s trying to rectify the situation and making changes to animal control for the safety of the animals and the employees. The goal is to provide more transparency and accountability to the public. They hope to address everything as quickly and positively as possible.

Debi Holcomb asked for a written policy and procedures for animal control, so a department head couldn’t act of his own accord. She also spoke about not being allowed to sign a contract for a dog around Thanksgiving 2020 and had to call a rescue in to obtain a contract for her.

new drainage. Photo courtesy of Natalie Kissel

 

Animal Control did recently make several improvements to the facility. Since Hensley took office, they fixed the drainage issue inside the building, trucks now have a GPS monitoring system, new sink installed, new hours, an account for donations, and started a volunteer of the month.  Under former Chairman Stan Helton, the volunteer program began, outdoor access to kennels, and installation of an outdoor play area.

Fannin poised to receive a class 5 ISO rating

News
ISO rating

BLUE RIDGE, Ga: Fire Chief Larry Thomas promised Fannin’s Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating would be dropping to a five in the near future.

He presented emails from ISO Community Hazard Mitigation Manager Michael Morash, who confirmed the “department has improved in class.” However, Morash did not have a date when the new rating would go into effect. The final report is still in the middle of being processed. The email was sent on January 27, 2021.

“It very well may take several months. He didn’t give me any ideas,” Thomas stated.

Fire Chief Larry Thomas

Fire Chief Larry Thomas

All the information was compiled in November 2020 and sent to ISO. After Thomas came back from medical leave, he reached out again to Morash about the ISO rating.

Some of the steps taken to get Fannin back to a Clas Five ISO rating included hiring full-time firefighters, public education, personnel training, truck pump testing, fire hose inspections, hydrant testing, ladder inspections, and building pre-plans.

Post Two Glenn Patterson asked how recently the fire chief had spoken with Morash. Thomas said it was around two weeks ago.

“These are his words, ‘we’re going back to a PC class five?’” Chairman Jaimie Hensley inquired. Thomas confirmed and added they would continue in their efforts to bring the rating down further.

“At least, it appears we’re going to go from a six to five, and I think you know we need to set goals to try and improve on that. As a regular citizen, I think we know the difference that it costs the citizens, such as the insurance, for instance. So, for that to come back down to a class five, that’s a pretty good start. Let’s just keep hammering,” Hensley remarked.

Post One Earl Johnson commented it’s a slow process. It took a year for the ISO Mitigation Team to return and reevaluate the county.

“Once they publish this that we’re improving to a five, then at that point, the insurance agencies can apply that rate to quote the new insurances to hopefully bring the premiums where they were,” Johnson commented.

Fannin residents should see insurance rates drop back down.

“I think it’s a very good idea to keep shoving forward as much money as we put into fire and EMS. I think we need to keep striving to get the number on down. Hopefully, with more water throughout the county with the water authority board, get all our fire hydrants in working order. I think it’s going to be continuous whether [ISO’s] auditing our fire services or not. I think it’s very crucial every year.”

Thomas explained that two firefighters spend their days maintaining hydrants and reporting any damage they find. At a previous meeting, Blue Ridge, McCaysville, and Fannin officials met with the fire department to discuss who’s responsible for fixing specific hydrants.

The plan to repair damaged hydrants is working, and the list of out-of-service hydrants has significantly shortened since 2020. Fire department’s still in the process of appropriately marking roadside hydrants to prevent mowers from running them over in the spring and summer.

Fire departments also improved their continuing education with an online program and in-person training. Post One Johnson told Thomas information like new training programs, and he should publicize improvements so the community can recognize their efforts.

litter ordinance

Post One Earl Johnson

“We can all work together and get that number down if at all possible,” Johnson stated. “We need to get that information out there to let people know what you are doing.”

The commissioners approved the hiring of six full-time firefighters as part of the 2020 budget. According to ISO ratios, three volunteers equal one full-time firefighter.

“The ratios they run with I don’t agree with, but as far as some of the other changes we had in our procedures, just quick, I guess on paging out the number of engines per house fire. If we were paging out three, Mike Stokes, the other ISO gentleman, said, you would need a total of 69 people there. I don’t know how they figure that. 20 people usually somebody getting in somebody’s way,” Thomas explained.

69 refers to the number of volunteers needed to replace 23 full-time firefighters, according to ISO standards.

“There’s not 23 paid people in any county around us. What do they do when a house catches on fire?” Johnson asked.

Thomas’s response was volunteer firefighters. Johnson added that some of the surrounding counties have a better ISO rating than Fannin. Thomas stated in the meeting that Union County has a four, which Union County’s website confirmed.

Chairman Hensley asked if urban and rural areas had different ratios. Thomas added all ratios were the same across the state.

Currently, Fannin’s volunteer firefighter base has dwindled due to extenuating circumstances like other employment and COVID-19. They’re working on filling those spots. However, the firefighter ratio can be overcome with more equipment, according to Thomas.

Fannin discusses how to enforce litter ordinance

Board of Commissioners, News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – The predicament of loose trash on Fannin roads and fixing the litter issue took center stage during the commissioner meeting.

Originally, Chief Land Development Officer Marie Woody approached the commissioners about changing some language on the Adopt a Road application. She had a list of 67 individuals and families in her records and 37 are still active. Four new people recently signed up as well.

Woody commended an Adopt a Road participant who picks up the trash and then sorts out the recycling before bagging it.

Woody presenting the new Adopt a Road program application.

Woody presenting the new Adopt a Road program application.

COVID-19 has prevented the Colwell Detention Center crews from picking up garbage since last March. As part of the contract with Colwell, Fannin only pays for the detainees if they work. Recently, local probationers have begun picking up trash every Saturday. The first Saturday, they worked several miles and picked up a dumpster full of garbage.

After some discussion about trash being strewn about the county, the conversation turned to the private garbage haulers. A letter about litter was sent to those businesses in early February.

Post One Earl Johnson relayed a story about witnessing a private garbage collector lose a bag on the road. The person stopped and picked up the bag but didn’t collect the pieces that fell out of the bag. When asked by Johnson if he would pick the garbage up, the individual drove away.  He believed the only way to stop littering is to crack down on those businesses.

Some haulers don’t cover the garbage or secure it in any way.

“Why can’t we make these people secure their loads?” Johnson inquired. “I just want us to do something, to do our job, to get them to start securing their load.”

He cited that one of the Adopt Road participants stated it picks up six bags a week.

Fannin does have an ordinance in place stating it’s unlawful for any vehicle to transport loose materials on any road or street without “suitable covers to securely fastened to the vehicle.” In the collections operation portion of the document, the ordinance also mandates that collection/transportation vehicles “shall be loaded in a way that the contents will not fall, leak, or spill” and “be covered when necessary to prevent the blowing or falling of materials from the vehicle.” Read entire Litter Control Ordinance 2009

Section of litter ordinance addressing littering and spillage

Section of ordinance addressing transportation of loose materials

Woody mentioned rewriting the solid waste ordinance to add clearer specifications for pick-ups, large trucks, along with tarp and enclosed backends. Johnson asserted that the state has a secured load law for vehicles.

However, Woody can’t issue a citation due to a change in Georgia law. The state changed the law to say that only a mandated officer can write a citation. She’s a code enforcement officer, not a state mandated officer.

“[The citation] would have to come from an officer who’s been to mandate school,” Woody said.

 

 

 

Chairman Jamie Hensley mentioned that they’ve talked about a potential county Marshall to enforce ordinances. The person would travel around and issue violation citations. It could be an off-duty officer as long as the person it mandated. The fine could range between $410 to $1,000, per day.

Chief Land Development Officer Marie Woody

Some rental properties and associated cleaners may bear some responsibility for loose bags of trash in the community.

Public Works Director Zack Ratcliff found a bag on Colwell Church Road, which contained a note from weekend cabin renters.

“The note inside of the garbage said, “We did not find an outside garbage can, so we left the garbage in the kitchen,’” Woody explained. “So, whoever picked it up from the cleaning job took it and deposited it out on Colwell Church Road.”

Woody asked for a list of all the cabin rentals in Fannin – all 1,600 owners. She’s considering sending a letter about littering to them as well.

“At this point, we got to do something. If’s there’s not any fear of losing bags of garbage, it’s going to just keep on. It’s went on so long now; it’s just awful,” Johnson commented.

Mineral Springs and more business

The commissioners granted Mineral Springs 2021 funding early after the facility asked for assistance due to the hardships of COVID-19.

2020 budget CARES Act Reimbursements was approved for four departments, totaling $78,000.

Janie Bearden was reappointed to the Tax Assessor Board.

Larry Chapman and Angie Arp were reappointed to the Water Authority Board.

Future of WhitePath building in continued limbo

News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga: The Whitepath building discussion resumed during the February 9 meeting without a resolution on how to proceed.

At a previous meeting, Post Two Glenn Patterson asked for site testing, such as asbestos, mold, mildew, and underground rock, to be performed before further plans were developed. According to Patterson, the recommended testing fell around $11,000, but it would remove several unknowns surrounding the project. The board asked County Attorney Lynn Doss to contact companies asking if they could perform soil testing and asbestos testing before the February meeting.

Hayes James promised to provide an estimate after the February meeting, and the county reached back out to Contour to “reduce the scope” of the testing to cut the price hopefully.

The board doesn’t believe parking lot drilling for rock will be necessary because most of Fannin’s ground doesn’t contain difficult to remove stone like granite.

“I just want to be as frugal as we possibly can with the county’s money,” Chairman Jamie Hensley stated.

The chairman also reached out to the UGA extension office because it conducts some of the testing needed at Whitepath. If a plausible solution, the extension office might save Fannin some money.

Administration, Library, or Both

Another point of conversation was the intended use of the Whitepath building – will it include the library or just administration offices?  

When Patterson and outgoing Post One Earl Johnson agreed to purchase the building in 2019, they bought it solely for administration purposes. Whitepath cost the county around $1.3 million.

In January 2020, the state bestowed a $1,383,000 grant for a new library, and Whitepath would be the proposed location.

County Attorney Lynn Doss spoke with bound council Gray and Panell, who previously worked with Fannin on SPLOST matters. The law office confirmed it’s not uncommon to house a library within an administrative building.

Johnson geared the SPLOST allocated for the new administrative building could be “lambasted by the library board” without established terms. 

The SPLOST specifically addressed creating new administrative offices to make it easier for the public to access. It didn’t include a new library as part of those funds when passed by Fannin County citizens.

“If the library goes in the building, there can be some sort of reimbursement made,” Johnson commented. “If the plan can come together for the library and the funds be appropriated to maybe reimburse SPLOST and purchase, say, a wing of the building or an acre of the property, then I would never have an objection to that.”

Outgoing Post One Earl Johnson

Patterson agreed that the SPLOST funds should go toward the administrative building, not the library.

Additionally, the $1.3 million grant likely won’t cover all library expenses, and the project would need more funding. Some on the library board estimated the new building would cost around $5 to $8 million.

The current square footage of the Fannin County Library is approximately 6,800 square feet. Previously, library board member Ron Bolin stated that according to state standards the new library would need at least 19,000 square feet.

Georgia Director of Library Planning and Construction Nate Rall has promised to help Fannin through the process.

Hensley wasn’t present for the purchase of Whitepath asked if the county had any other options before buying the building?

Johnson confirmed it wasn’t the only option, but ultimately, it’s the direction the board went. With the hot real-estate, it’s unlikely the county will find another piece of property for a similar value.

Changes on the way for Fannin Commission meetings, Walker selected interim CFO

Board of Commissioners, Featured News, Featured Stories, News
Fannin commission meeting

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – At the first commission meeting of the new administration, Chairman Jamie Hensley proposed several changes to the format.

Going forward, for a trial period, the meetings will be moved until 6 p.m., instead of 5:15 p.m. The later start time will hopefully give more citizens an opportunity to attend the meetings, which remain on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month.

“You can’t get a good pulse from the citizens if they can’t get here,” Post One Commissioner Earl Johnson commented.

Post Two Glenn Patterson asked if county costs would go up if the meeting moved to a later time. He furthered explained if the meeting was later, would county employees add that as extra time to their workday if asked to attend. He also commented the meeting would start after dark for five months out of the year if moved to 6 p.m. Some older individuals prefer not to drive in the dark, he added.

Hensley stated, “Nobody is able to attend and have the input or anything they might want to say. I want everybody to understand I work for the county, for the citizens of Fannin County…I want to give every opportunity they possibly can.”

Board meetings will move to 6 p.m. on a trial basis.

Also, public comments will occur at the end of the meeting, not the middle. The time limit for speakers will be extended from three minutes to five minutes. Again, this change will begin on a trial basis.

“I have mixed emotions,” Patterson remarked about public comments. “I know we deal with a lot of things up here. Some things can be very controversial…The way we do it now. We don’t feed the fire. They come up there thinking about what they want to say.”

Patterson believed the middle of the meeting commentary allows for cooler heads to prevail.

“You’re going to get it whether it’s here or right out there, so take your pick,” Johnson said. “In here, it’s usually more reserved, civil, or go right out there and you might hear something that really hurts your feelings.”

Johnson added moving public commentary to the end gives citizens an opportunity to congratulate the board or quickly get something off their chest instead of “stewing” for two weeks.

“I see both sides,” Hensley stated. “I’m always the one if there’s an issue, I want to know now that way we can put the fire out so to speak, and move forward. I know they are things will have to take a step back on, but I always want to move forward.”

The trial period for the meeting time and public comments runs from January through April. After that, the board will decide to make the change permanent or not.

Additional Bussiness

County Clerk Sherri Walker was selected as the interim Chief Financial Officer following the resignation of Robin Gazaway in December.

Sherri Walker will serve as interim CFO.

The board also granted the tax commissioner approval to accept checks, cash, debit, credit cards on behalf of Fannin County and disperse property tax and motor vehicle tax bimonthly.  Additionally, the commissioners approved the tax commissioner’s ability to waive interest or penalties for valid reasons.

Commissioners accepted the Division of Family and Children Services budget for 2021.

Two variances were tabled, and one was approved.

Read more about why Post One Earl Johnson is continuing to serve, here.

Commissioners approve hazard pay for county-employed emergency services

Board of Commissioners, News
hazard pay under budget

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Fannin County first responders, firefighters, and sheriff’s office employees will be receiving hazard pay for their efforts during the pandemic. The commissioners finally reached an understanding on the subject in the November 24, 2020 meeting.

“These EMS workers, sheriff’s department, fire department, they can’t telefix anyone. They have to be right there with them, hands-on, dealing with them absolutely directly,” Post One Earl Johnson stated. “I feel even stronger about it now than our last meeting… If anybody is deserving of the $500 hazard pay, it’s our first responders at this moment.”

Read previous meeting hazard pay article.

Post Two Glenn Patterson agreed with Johnson and added that “you’re never going to have 100 percent support in anything you do. I think this would increase morale and give workers financial security and confidence.

Full and part-time paramedics, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, jailers, school resource officers, and first responders will receive $500 or $250 depending on their employment status.

“If they’re employed by Fannin County full-time $500, part-time $250,” Johnson clarified. “

However, volunteer firefighters won’t be receiving any hazard pay.

“I think their name says it all. They’re not full-time, not that I don’t appreciate them. I think that was the big sticking point when we first started talking about this. How do you distinguish between, you know, people that are active volunteer firefighters and people that are still volunteer firefighters, but they’re not able to volunteer much…I think it would be hard to be fair with volunteers,” Johnson explained. “No one came up with a definitive way to do it and do it fairly. As of right now, it would be hard to include them in this.”

Patterson added that maybe after the first of the year, the county could consider an incentive for the volunteers.
Elected officials and department heads aren’t eligible to receive hazard pay.

The total amount for the county would be between $50,000 and $65,000. However, the money is reimbursable through the $1.3 million provided to Fannin County through the CARES Act.

Technically, Fannin County will experience less of a financial burden than neighboring counties for hazard pay. For example, Pickens County awarded its first responders $2,000 in hazard pay.

Fannin can’t award pay retroactively, so they must issue it in upcoming pay periods. However, Chairman Stan Helton and Post One Johnson can’t approve anything past December 31.

“If we’re dealing with federal money, I want to make sure that we’re not going to do anything that’s going to put us in a bind for next year. The retroactive pay that was discussed last meeting was a game-changer. This is an important thing that we’re trying to get to a decision, but it’s important stuff here that we don’t mess it up,” Chairman Helton explained.

Ultimately, the board left it up to the financial department to decide it a lump sum or 4-increments based on county employees’ most tax beneficial outcome.

Johnson made the motion, Patterson seconded, and all three commissioners voted in favor of it.

COVID-19 hazard pay tabled for frontline workers

News
hazard pay disaster planning

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Commissioners decided to indefinitely table CARES Act hazard pay until receiving more information from the state.

With several unanswered questions about eligibility and everchanging guidelines from the state, the board decided to hold on accepting COVID-19 hazard pay. The item can be brought up again by the new administration in January 2021 or if new information becomes available. There’s no deadline by which to spend the money.

Several other counties have begun accepting hazard funds, but no one appears to follow a standard aside from frontline public safety employees qualify. However, the guidelines continually change the meaning of public safety employees. As of September 8, the sheriff department, firefighters, 911, and EMS/EMA were listed as approved to receive hazard funds.

Volunteer firefighters could receive $10 per call, but that isn’t a finalized plan, just a proposal.

“What’s legal for us to pay?” asked Post One Earl Johnson.

County Attorney Lynn Doss confirmed that anyone under the EMS/EMA umbrella should qualify for hazard pay.

“I’m not going to make the final say on who gets what when they don’t work for me every day. I would like to feel very comfortable with recommendations from [department heads],” added Johnson.

No one wanted to release funds to employees that wouldn’t ultimately be reimbursable through the CARES Act.

Fannin County received notification in June about CARES Act funding, but it didn’t trickle down to smaller municipalities until later. Initially, they believed the CARES Act funds needed to be spent by September 1, but hazard pay didn’t fall under that deadline.

If local communities don’t follow the state’s guidelines, it is possible for the state to revoke those CARES Act funds.

County Attorney Doss will ask around the state to see the consensus about spending CARES Act hazard pay funds.

Post Two Glenn Patterson made a motion to table the issue until further clarification or knowledge of the deadline. Chairman Stan Helton seconded, and it was unanimously approved.

Property taxes remain low in Fannin County

Uncategorized
property taxes increase non-critical state of emergency 2020 Budget

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Fannin Commissioners set the overall county millage rate at 14.253 mills and accepted the county and school system’s rollbacks.

Fannin County Schools rolled their millage rate back from 10.593 to 10.391 mills on Thursday, August 27. Previously, commissioners proposed to roll the county portion of the millage rate back to 3.938 to 3.862 mills. Typically, Fannin’s millage rate is one of the five lowest in Georgia.

“ The coronavirus, it’s effected [every person in one way or another.] At this current time, I don’t see any way of even thinking about a tax increase that would be my ten cents,” Post One Earl Johnson stated.

The county-side of the millage rate accounts for around 35 percent of the tax revenues. It affects all property owners or renters living in Fannin. The larger portion of county revenues come from SPLOST, LOST, and hotel/motel collections, and those taxes continue to do well during the pandemic.

“The millage rate really gets to the heart of the citizens here,” Chairman Stan Helton added. “Many of them are elderly…and low-income folks that live here on a fixed income. I feel a necessity just like you do on keeping the millage rate on these folks as low as we can.”

In the past, Fannin decided to use SPLOST, LOST, and hotel/motels funds on some public safety and capital outlay projects.

“As the county has grown, we’ve put those tax collections on the right group, and that’s primarily the visitors and tourists that we’re blessed in this county to have,” Helton said.

He continued to stress that the county isn’t cheating public safety or any other department but easing the burden of people who struggle.

Johnson included that he hoped, at the beginning of 2020, he hoped to maintain the millage rate to take advantage of new growth. The 2019 audit report revealed an additional $381,000 in property taxes just from new developments. However, 2020 had other plans with COVID-19 and widespread unemployment.

Post Two Glenn Patterson wasn’t present at the meeting due to technical difficulties over the teleconference meeting.

Fannin “preparing for growth” according to 2019 audit

News
Fannin growth audit

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – New auditors believed Fannin County demonstrated acceptable money management practices and “preparing for growth” during the 2019 audit presentation.

Amanda Wilkson, CPA from BatesCarter Company, presented their overall findings for the 2019 audit.

Fannin received a clean/unmodified opinion for 2019, which is the best report a government organization under audit can attain. The financial statements were presented fairly, with generally accepted accounting principles.

“We have audited all departments, funds, and the elected officials of Fannin County,” Wilkson explained. “There are also component units included in this set of financial states that appropriately show the [county’s] full reach.”

Component units are the development authority, department of public health (DPH), and water authority. Another company conducted the DPH and water authority audits.

In Fannin County’s General Fund, revenues in total exceeded expenditures by $313,000, meaning the county collected more money than spent. Overall, revenues increased by approximately three percent from 2018. The total increase is typically related to property and sales taxes, which grew by $909,000 in 2019.

Post One Earl Johnson asked Wilkson to account for the property tax increase since the millage rate remained the same in 2019. She confirmed that new growth and assessments led to the property tax increase.

“There’s comparable growth to the [county] population and activity,” Wilkson said when discussing her research.

When comparing the 2019 revenues to the budgeted expectations, revenues with up by $1.35 million. Motor vehicle taxes were over budget by $396,000; LOST exceeded the budget by $734,000; Insurance premium tax was up $102,000, and charges for services went up by $273,000. The costs for services increase was mainly related to the ambulance service fee.

“The reason that a lot of these revenues exceed the budget is [that] conservative budget projections for revenue is the [best practices] for the budgeting process. [Many] of these increases in revenue lines show growth population increase and increase in activity in the county. You want to be conservative in [assuming growth],” Wilkson added.

Overall expenditures were down by $999,000 or five percent from 2018. Health claims decreased by $92,000, and capital outlay purchases dropped by $904,000.

The county spent $359,000 less than expected in the 2019 budget. Wilkson cited salaries and benefits coming in at approximately 2.7 percent less than the budget.

Intergovernmental revenue from payment in lieu of tax (PILT) agreements decreased by $352,000. The TVA PILT is a direct result of a reduction in activity from 2018.

Ambulance service charges increased by $288,000.

As for hotel/motel tax, transfers into the fund grew by $293,000, indicating continued growth in Fannin’s tourism economy.

Proceeds from debt issuance decreased by $550,000. “These proceeds mean that there was a new debt that the county approved in 2018, and no new dept was [comparatively] approved in 2019,” stated Wilkson.

In 2019, the county added to the general fund by spending less than the revenue, so revenues and fund balances grew. Fannin County had seven months’ worth of expenditures on hand at the end of December 2019.

2019 marked the first time in three years that the county didn’t outspend it’s revenue.

“The county does not need to rely on tax anticipation notes or have to get funding to be able to cash flow those expenditures,” Wilkson explained.

 The excise lodging tax received $2 million in collections. $1 million went to the Chamber of Commerce, and a net transfer of $573,000 went to the general fund.

SPLOST brought in $6.1 million in collections. $6.7 million of SPLOST funds went to projects for the road department, intergovernmental disbursements, and the administration building.

At the end of 2019, the contractual debt for Fannin was $3 million. All the debt should mature within the next three years.

Chairman Helton confirmed that the $2.2 million on the courthouse doesn’t include the 2020 payments.

According to Wilkson, counties of similar sizes to Fannin average around $8.6 million in debt.

The 2019 audit report will be available to the public on the Fannin County website.

Getting Fannin residents jobs during a pandemic

Community, News
Fannin jobs

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Fannin County’s faring better than neighboring counties when it comes to unemployment. Currently, at 4.6 percent unemployment, Fannin is the lowest in the Northwest Georgia Region. The Fannin County Development Authority has also taken measures to assist citizens in finding jobs. 

When COVID-19 closings hit the community the hardest, it jumped up to nine percent in April. Before the pandemic, Fannin only had three percent unemployment.

The Fannin County Development Authority created a job board for Fannin County to help combat COVID-19-related layoffs. It tracks who’s hiring within the community and features employers from several industries. As of July 26, the board had over 25 jobs posted.

“It’s not all-inclusive, not meant to replace the department of labor or any other job posting. It’s just a way for me to track what’s going on. Often times, I’ll get calls about people looking for employment, and I can easily give them the job board,” explained Fannin County Development Authority Executive Director Christie Gribble.

Commissioners thanked Gribble for all her hard work.

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has partnered with the development authority for a remote work pilot program. 50 Fannin County citizens will be given free memberships to Flex Jobs to assist them in finding remote career opportunities.

“It’s a well-respected database of remote jobs, so jobs that you can do at your home…I was very happy to be selected to participate,” said Gribble.

TVA will track Flex Jobs applications to see who in the area finds work through the program.

The memberships are designed for people currently living in Fannin County and want to remain in Fannin. The opportunities are all remote or partially remote.

“[It’s] not to replace employment opportunities that are available in-person in our community, but these are for skill sets that might be better suited for someone else. There’s a lot of data engineering jobs that we might not have here locally, but someone could do from home,” Gribble added.

Flex jobs website also offers resume reviews, job-seeking coaching, and employment articles. An annual membership costs around $50 or $6.99 per week.

Fannin County residents can go to the development authority website for anyone who might be interested in free membership.

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