BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – The future of the farmer’s market property and the city pool stood out among five main topics of conversation addressed by the Blue Ridge City Council as well as dozens of attending citizens in a town hall meeting Tuesday, March 27.
In the February and March council meetings, the council discussed options for either selling, leasing or renovating the farmer’s market property off of Summit Street. At the most recent meeting, Jim Sisson, owner of Sisson Log Homes, expressed his desire to either buy or lease the property as an overflow space to use for drying materials for his business.
While the council members seemingly agreed in the past meetings in their desire to renovate the property and to reopen it as an arts and/or entertainment destination in an ideal scenario, the podium was opened to the audience at the town hall meeting for direct input from citizens to gauge the consensus of residents.
Accepting the invitation was Joe Webb, of Dial, who explained that while he lives outside the city limits, he does have an interest in the city, working with the Blue Ridge Community Theater. Among the suggestions put forth by Webb were to use the property as a centralized location for a stand-alone public library or to simply sell the property to the highest bidder in an effort to establish “hotel and some retail density in that area.”
Webb went on to admit while there is some sentimental value attributed to the property, “economically, it’s literally a relic of the past.”
Another citizen, Larry Bersyn, asked about the amount of income the farmer’s market property was contributing to the city.
“It has zero income, right now, just expenses,” Mayor Donna Whitener answered, referring to utility costs.
“So, why do we still have it?” Bersyn asked.
Councilwoman Rhonda Haight explained the farmer’s market is a unique property that the city owns. “It could become a really neat art district, which we don’t have,” Haight added, also stating she would like to see the property double as an event center.
Councilman Nathan Fitts stated he liked the idea of converting the area into an arts and cultural center but was concerned about the cost to renovate.
“We do have somebody who would like to lease it,” Whitener reminded the council, likely referring to Sisson. “So until we we come up with a plan, why do we not consider leasing it out? At least it stops our bleeding.”
Whitener also explained Sisson would be willing to temporarily lease the property and move off the property once the city did produce a long-term plan for the property as long as he was given a 30 to 60-day notice to vacant.
Another citizen pointed out that an arts and cultural district would mostly benefit tourists but selling the property to make way for a stand-alone library would benefit the working people of the community.
Brian Pritchard, publisher of FetchYourNews, pleaded with the council to lease the property to Sisson, a 17-year local business owner, until a long-term plan was established. “Make a long-term plan, but maybe in the short-term, lease it to Mr. Sisson and say, ‘Thank you for being a business owner in the city for 17 years,'” Pritchard said.
Ultimately, Mayor Whitener agreed this was the best option for the city.
Tony Byrd, city street superintendent and shop mechanic, was on hand at the meeting to discuss maintenance issues with the city pool. Whitener explained the pool has a leak in the main drain and needs replacement of internal filters, manifold gaskets and valves. She also stated there was possible leak in the skimmer system.
Byrd stated to repair the aforementioned issues, the estimate would be between $5,000 and $10,000. If there is a leak in the skimmer system, Whitener stated it would be “many tens of thousands” of dollars to repair. The mayor also said she asked Byrd to present a definite amount to the council by the April meeting for the costs to repair the smaller issues to open it for this summer and then the city would look to the 2019 pool season to have the more expensive issues resolved.
Whitener also stated 1,429 people used the pool in 2017, which amounted to just under $6,000 in revenue.
In addition to repairing the pool, the council discussed ideas for constructing a city splash pad and Whitener suggested forming a committee to look for grants and/or create a campaign to generate funds to pay for these projects.
When Haight asked the audience for input, Bersyn said, “Sell the farmer’s market, use the money from the farmer’s market to pay for the pool (and) we have a new pool next year … And stop wasting the city’s money.”
Webb also spoke on the issue and mentioned that the county was studying the prospect of creating an indoor pool at the Tom Boyd Recreation Center. Webb stated he would rather see an indoor pool located more centrally and within the city.
Council members Nathan Fitts and Haight agreed to meet with the county in the near future about the possibility of forming a joint venture to build an indoor pool.
The upcoming Georgia Cities Week, which will take place April 22 to 28 in Blue Ridge, was discussed by the council. Georgia Cities Week is a week-long celebration sponsored by the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA). GMA is a non-profit legal advocacy organization, of which Blue Ridge is a municipality member, that offers consulting services to its member cities.
During the week, Blue Ridge will be coordinating a city-wide litter clean-up campaign in which residents and organizations are asked to dispose of accumulated litter in two dumpsters donated by Advanced Disposal that will be situated at locations within the city limits. Possible dumpster locations discussed by council included the farmer’s market property on Summit Street, near the Co-Op store on East Main Street and possibly at the Kiwanis Fairgrounds.
In the same vein, Council Members Ken Gaddis and Rhonda Haight put forth the idea of the city beginning to conduct a regular small brush pick-up twice in the month of April and again during the fall after leaves have fallen in an effort to keep gutters and storm drains clear of debris.
The city will also conduct a Mayor’s Essay Contest during the week, which will be open to all elementary, middle, high school or home school students. Those participating in the essay contest should compose a 150 to 300-word essay centered around the topic of “If I were mayor, I would …”
Other discussed ideas for Georgia Cities Week included reaching out to Red Cross, the Humane Society of Blue Ridge, and Georgia Mountains Health about possibly conducting a blood drive, animal adoption fair and health fair, respectively.
Mayor Donna Whitener stated she had recently spoken to representatives from the local chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA) who expressed interest in participating in a beautification project for the downtown area, which would include situating planters along the sidewalks near downtown businesses. Whitener explained the city would be responsible for the purchase of the planters and plants and “they (FFA) will put (the planters) together for us.”
When the mayor asked local business owner and President of the Blue Ridge Business Association (BRBA) Cesar Martinez of the number of planters he thought would be needed, Martinez said he felt 30 planters would be sufficient.
Regarding another area of downtown beautification, Martinez spoke to the council about the possibility of erecting standards along streets to display small flags or banners. Martinez stated several different types of banners could be produced displaying the various downtown events, such as Fire & Ice or Trout Fest, that take place throughout the year. He added if the city paid for the standards, the Chamber of Commerce and the BRBA would be willing to split costs with the city to produce the banners. Whitener stated she thought the standards ran around $25 a piece and Pam Fink, of the BRBA, said the cost to produce the flags would be around $35 per flag.
Martinez was told to put together a definite proposal to present to the council at a later date.
An update on the current Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) project near Orchard Boulevard was given. The mayor stated the water infrastructure improvement project was scheduled to begin April 5. The council spoke of what to consider for the next CDBG project, and it was agreed that addressing the flooding issues near Ada Street should be the next project.
At the March 13 council meeting, Ben and Natalie Kissel, city residents who live in the Ada Street flood plain, talked with the council about recent flooding problems in that neighborhood. Gaddis reported that he along with a representative from Carter & Sloope, the city’s contracted engineering firm, visited the area Wednesday, March 21, to study the issue.
“There are some serious issues we’re having in flooding areas and we put together a pretty good game plan,” Gaddis explained. He added that surveyors from Carter & Sloope would be examining the area to determine which property owners would need to provide the city with easements to allow the city to move forward with a long-term improvement project. In the short-term, Gaddis stated the city could install storm culverts and water bumper rails to help direct water flow away from owners’ properties.
Whitener also mentioned the city could receive additional state funding assistance by pursuing a WaterFirst Community designation. The mayor said this application process typically takes about six to eight months. The designation is awarded to municipalities demonstrating a strong commitment to water resource stewardship by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
A project to construct a two, or possibly three, story downtown restroom facility near the depot was also discussed. According to Whitener, the existing plan to build a two-story facility would cost $450,000 and the city has already been approved for a $300,000 Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant, leaving the city to pay the remaining $150,000. Fitts reported he had heard the cost would be in the range of $750,000.
After Martinez asked about a target date for finalizing plans for the restrooms, Mayor Whitener stated the city would know more after its meeting with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs Wednesday about options for the ARC grant.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – After an executive session to discuss personnel that lasted over an hour, the Blue Ridge City Council reconvened the public portion of their Tuesday, Feb. 13, meeting and approved a number of city employee appointments and entry-level pay scale proposals in the Water and Utilities Department.
Among the many hirings and appointments, the council appointed William Long as water distribution supervisor at a rate of $17.50 an hour, Tony Byrd as acting chief mechanic and street supervisor at a rate of $17.00 an hour, and Shannon Payne as water loss and mapping supervisor at a rate of $22.54 an hour. Each was appointed with a six-month probation period.
As for the proposed entry-level pay scale changes in the Water and Utilities Department, Mayor Whitener read the pay scale list as follows:
- Water plant supervisor – $19.00 an hour;
- Water treatment plant class I employee – $16.50 an hour;
- Water treatment plant class II employee – $15.25 an hour;
- Water treatment plant class III employee – $14.00 an hour;
- Equipment operator – $14.00 an hour;
- Maintenance worker – $12.50 an hour;
- Meter technician – $12.50 an hour;
- Customer service manager – $12.50 an hour; and
- Utilities director – $19.00 an hour.
“These are entry level (pay scales) and most of those (positions) are already filled by somebody that’s had some tenure here,” Mayor Donna Whitener explained. The council unanimously approved the proposed pay scale.
Also discussed at the meeting was the farmer’s market property. Mayor Whitener reported the city has received recent interest from potential buyers of the property. Whitener continued stating if the city is unwilling to sell the property, a plan to refurbish the property needs to be put in place soon. Whitener explained the facility would need some water line upgrades and some re-engineering to make the space ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant “And we need to come up with a plan. We need a plan in place as to how we’re going utilize the farmer’s market,” Whitener said.
The council discussed the success of the Blairsville farmer’s market on the weekends. Whitener further clarified a decision was not to be made at the meeting but that she would like to hear feedback from the council regarding whether to sell, lease or upgrade the facility in the next 30 days.
“It’s such an amazing venue. I just cannot see us selling it,” Thomas-Haight stated. “I, personally, would not vote for that.”
While admitting the city would have to address the ADA compliance issue of the venue, Councilman Ken Gaddis concurred with Thomas-Haight’s sentiments saying, “It’s a heritage point of Fannin County. I think everybody here has been to that farmer’s market. Nobody owns that except the city of Blue Ridge, in my opinion, and the citizens … We grew up going there – I know I did – and I’d like to see the next generation of kids going there too.”
The council also reviewed a quote from KorKat Playgrounds and Site Amenities for shade covers for the downtown park playgrounds. The steel and aluminum column supports would come with a lifetime warranty while the Kevlar fabric canopies would have a 10-year limited warranty. According to Thomas-Haight, the shade cover would decrease the burn potential to children of the playground equipment during the summer months. The total cost of the shade covers would be $19,210.01, which would include a $1,500 engineering fee, according to the KorKat quote.
Kate George, of the Blue Ridge Elementary School (BRES) Cool Kids Gardening Club, spoke on behalf of the organization and told of its success. George stated the club has existed at BRES for seven years and the club typically consists of around 15 third and fourth graders. The club, George said, allows the students to gain gardening knowledge and have hands-on experiences related to gardening.
“The objective of being in our garden club is to become a Junior Master Gardener,” George explained, “and at the end of the year, if these kids come to 80 percent of the meetings and take the final exam and complete two service projects, then they will become Junior Master Gardeners.”
This year, for one of those projects, the students built bluebird houses and donated them to the city of Blue Ridge, presenting the birdhouses to the council at the beginning of the meeting.
“We hope that you enjoy putting them up, and that they attract a lot of lovely bluebirds to our wonderful town,” George said.
Later, Mayor Whitener reported the city had recently received a claims check for $20,165 for storm damage to the city hall roof suffered in an April 2017 storm. The mayor explained the damaged portion was mainly confined to the old drive-through area of the building. Councilwoman Thomas-Haight stated she felt re-roofing the area would be wasteful until future parking and city hall expansion plans are determined. Haight-Thomas recommended depositing the funds into the general fund for now.
Also, the council approved a $10,000 amount to be spent toward repairs and improvements for the Blue Ridge Police Department station. The mayor explained the building has several repair needs, including plumbing, guttering, painting, flooring, ceiling and electrical improvements and repairs. “Other than that, it’s a good building,” Police Chief Johnny Scearce laughed. “Solid as a rock.”
Though the amount was approved for $10,000.00, the mayor explained the repairs should cost closer to $6,000 or $7,000. Whitener also said city Finance Director Alicia Stewart had studied the budget closely and found enough leeway to cover the full amount, if needed.
Later, the council approved a number of other expenditures:
- A $4,200 invoice from Appalachian Cable Installers, Inc. for a four-inch bore casing for water service under state Route 515;
- A $4,012.50 invoice from Carter & Sloope for additional engineering and consulting services for an Orchard Boulevard project;
- A $5,164.98 quote from Sutton Tire, Inc., of Clarkesville, Georgia, for new tires for police department vehicles;
- A $25,000 annual purchase order from Industrial Chemical for chemicals for the city water treatment plant;
- A $4,105 purchase order from Hydocal LLC for yearly calibrations at the water treatment plant; and
- Two invoices totaling $4,942 from Lance Trucking for gravel.
In public commentary, Cesar Martinez, president of the Blue Ridge Business Association, reminded the council and the audience of this weekend’s eighth annual Fire and Ice Chili Cook Off to be held in downtown Blue Ridge Saturday, Feb. 17, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Martinez reported 21 ice sculptures will be situated in the downtown area, 16 chili vendors will be participating in the cook off, and the Owl Creek Band will be performing.
Kit Miracle told the council of a vehicle accident she experienced at a narrow section of road on Trackside Lane where the side of the road collapsed. Miracle stated she maneuvered the vehicle to the side of the road as an oncoming vehicle was coming toward her from the other lane. Mayor Whitener explained to Miracle the council had approved the widening of the road at the last city council meeting and improvements are now proceeding.
Nancy Zimmerman asked the city to communicate with Patriot Rail and coordinate a plan to clear vegetation from the mostly unused portion of railroad tracks south of the city rail yard.
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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